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Expert Alert

U of M expert available to talk about the challenge of legislating Olympic doping

August 1, 2012

When past Olympic records are shattered and new scores trump the old in a tremendous way, how an athlete achieved such a performance is often called into question.

Monday, United States swimming coach John Leonard alleged that the record-breaking performance of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen was “unbelievable” and that the swimmer’s last 100m of a 400m individual medley swim was “suspicious.” As the swimmer went on to receive a second gold yesterday, breaking yet another record, suspicions rose.

Chinese officials have firmly rejected the doping claim and they’ve even pushed back, citing Michael Phelps’ 2008 performance in Beijing as another Olympic feat that could be openly questioned.

The International Olympic Committee has denied allegations of doping by either athlete and point to the rigorous drug testing Olympic athletes undergo as reason fans shouldn’t worry about the fairness of competition.

But just how does Olympic drug testing work? Is a clean Olympic drug test the final word on an athlete’s performance?

An expert who can speak on how doping improves athletic performance, the difficulties in determining what is a performance enhancing substance and an athlete’s ability to circumvent doping tests is:

David Ferguson, Ph.D., professor and director of graduate studies in the University of Minnesota’s School of Pharmacy and creator of the University’s Drugs of Abuse course.

According to Ferguson, many people would be surprised to learn that a clean drug test doesn’t necessarily mean that there are zero suspicious findings in a drug sample submitted by an athlete. All it means is that the sample didn’t test positive for pre-defined banned substances.

“Legally there’s nothing you can do if a chemical shows up that’s not on the list of 240 banned substances, even if a laboratory official finds something that he or she knows may be a performance enhancing drug,” said Ferguson.

Much like with synthetic drugs and “bath salts,” performance-enhancing drugs are complicated to legislate because of the ability of drug designers to consistently alter chemical compounds and the structure of banned substances.

The substances can give athletes a tremendous edge, either through strength enhancement or through increased energy or focus.

According to Ferguson, many drug tests – even the strictest tests available – can be behind the curve.

“Doping regulations need to be changed,” he said. “There needs to be a more effective way to stay up to date on the latest drugs athletes can use and still submit a clean drug sample.”

To schedule an interview with Ferguson, please contact Miranda Taylor, Academic Health Center, at (612) 626-2767 or

Expert Alert is a service provided by the University News Service. Delivered regularly, Expert Alert is designed to connect university experts to today’s breaking news and current events. For an archive and other useful media services, visit Views expressed by experts do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Minnesota.


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