Does drug testing tell the whole story?
By Michael Le Page Two prominent American athletes have failed drugs tests in the past week: Floyd Landis, winner of the Tour de France, and Olympic 100-metre champion Justin Gatlin. Things look bad for both men. The test that they failed measures the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in urine. No one knows what, if anything, epitestosterone does, but while the overall level of testosterone in individuals can vary greatly, the testosterone to epitestosterone (TE) ratio is usually 1:1. A result of 4:1 or above requires further investigation. Around 1 per cent of athletes naturally have a TE ratio over 4:1. Crucially, however, this ratio is stable, so by looking at an individual’s past results or monitoring them over several weeks, authorities can establish whether or not they have a naturally high ratio. Both Landis and Gatlin have passed previous tests, so their TE ratios have changed. The only known physiological state that significantly alters the TE ratio is the effect of heavy drinking in women, says Christine Ayotte of the Doping Control Laboratory in Montreal, Canada. In men, however, the effect is thought to be small: one study found that drinking the equivalent of 5 pints of strong beer raised the ratio from 1.1:1 to just 1.5:1, for instance. Unconfirmed reports claim Landis’s ratio was 11:1. A high TE ratio is usually a sign that people are taking extra testosterone or one of the precursor molecules that the body converts into testosterone, and in both cases, the presence of synthetic testosterone has been shown by isotopic tests. Landis’s result was yet to be confirmed by tests on his second sample when New Scientist went to press. Some people try to beat the TE ratio test by taking epitestosterone along with testosterone to maintain a 1:1 ratio, but since epitestosterone remains in the body for longer, this is not as easy as it sounds. In Landis’s case, some newspapers have claimed that it wouldn’t have made sense for him to take a one-off dose of testosterone, because only long-term use benefits athletes. In fact, surprisingly little is known about its performance-boosting effects. One study, initiated by New Scientist (12 August 2004, p 6), showed that even low doses can lead to rapid increases in performance. Meanwhile, Gatlin’s coach claims a masseur used a testosterone cream on his legs. That would certainly account for his result,