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BBC Sport Olympics

Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008, 07:03 GMT
Drug fears on Beijing horizon
By Sir Matthew Pinsent
Inside Sport in Beijing

Drugs in sport
Inside Sport Beijing Special, BBC ONE, Wednesday 20 February, 2250-2330 GMT

From first punching the initials into an internet search engine it took about 48 hours to get the stuff onto my BBC desk. It cost £180 and would last the average user about a fortnight.

It used to come with some health risks but now the Chinese pharmaceutical companies have got so good at producing it that they can pump it out at higher quality and lower cost than anyone else in the world.

For those willing to run the gauntlet of HM Customs, the rewards can be pretty high. One unit costs about a dollar in China but you can sell it here for about £10. Even taking the strong pound into account it's a fair profit margin.

I'm talking about human growth hormone (HGH), a performance-enhancing drug, or as the doctors call it an "anabolic agent".

I've never been one for performance-enhancing drugs to be honest. As an Olympic athlete, I didn't like taking anything such were the scare stories over supplements, vitamins and dietary additions.

Now, in the last few weeks, I've had to get up close and personal with HGH. It builds strength, bone density and possibly endurance.

If a drug is easy to get, easy to use and helps performance, why hasn't anyone been caught?

Some herald it as the drug of choice for a whole range of people. Those looking to get fitter, those looking to lose weight and probably those looking to get around sport's testing programmes.

So surely there is a side effect that is going to make using HGH unadvisable?

Well, no. There aren't too many studies on adults abusing HGH over a long period but compared to steroids it's a walk in the park.

Steroids can give you mood swings, muscle rupture and a number of other unpleasant side effects. Male users can even grow breasts.

With HGH there is little to worry about. Admittedly, it's not as potent as most steroids, and you do have to take it for longer, but its downsides are relatively minor.

So if it is going to help you in your chosen sport, and is pretty risk-free in its procurement, then surely the testers will be waiting, sentinel-like, at the gates of the Olympic village?


Again, no. The exact test for HGH is hard to pin down. It's a naturally-occurring substance and doesn't hang around in your system for long.

The International Olympic Committee is sure the test that is now in use will be able to catch people.

But, according to British expert Peter Sönksen, the testers have to get to the cheat within 24 hours of them injecting HGH. If you keep your use away from competition, you'd be unlikely to get caught.

Drugs in sport
Doubts will surround the Olympics until a robust HGH test is found
The IOC test has been in use since Athens. So far, the number of cheats caught is zero. It just doesn't add up - if a drug is easy to get, easy to use and helps performance, why hasn't anyone been caught?

Sönksen thinks he knows the answer. He worked on a rival test - sponsored by the IOC - in the run-up to the Sydney Games in 2000.

Despite his work, which he felt was robust, the test wasn't adopted. Sonksen feels to this day he can catch cheats up to three weeks after HGH use.

The IOC is adamant that the Sönksen test "was not fully endorsed by the scientific community" and it has "full confidence in the test currently in use to detect HGH at the Beijing Games". But they are unwilling to discuss the "detection window", saying it would undermine the deterrent effect.

I asked Wu Moutian, the laboratory director at China's anti-doping agency, whether he was confident if anyone using HGH would get caught in Beijing. He admitted he didn't know - hardly a ringing endorsement for the current testing regime.

I want to have the confidence that the IOC has in its test, I want to see the cheats caught. But my own recent experience has meant that I've seen up close just how easy it would be to procure and cheat with HGH.

I'm not so naïve to think that athletes have not followed the same path. My packet of Chinese HGH is still sitting on my desk, I wonder what happened to theirs?

Sir Matthew Pinsent has been reporting from the Olympic host city for Inside Sport's Beijing Special on BBC1, Wednesday 20 February, 2250-2330 GMT. Inside Sport will return to its normal slot on Mondays at 2320 GMT from 25 February.



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