The Athlete

Drug Testing in Sports


According to an August 2013 article printed in the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, the Word Anti-Doping Agency (or WADA for short) administered more than 267,000 drug tests to athletes around the world in 2012. Of the tests administered, approximately 3200 (or 1.2%) of the results came back as positive or had adverse findings that disqualified offending athletes from competition or resulted in forfeitures of wins or medals.The testing procedures for drug abuse in sports are strict and at times deemed unfair by athletes. They are deemed unfair because athletes are responsible for knowing what is banned despite the fact that additions are made almost daily to the list of banned substances. The best possible solution is to avoid all drugs unless listed on the allowed substance list.

Established in 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency is an independent international organization responsible for the development of anti-doping policies and procedures as well as monitoring of the World Anti-Doping Code (Code.) WADA also manages the accreditation of laboratories used for collection and analysis and defines the guidelines they must follow.

If you participate in a sport that requires drug testing (and virtually all do these days,) chances are good that the athletic or sporting association to whom you or your team answers subscribes to WADA rules for drug and anti-doping testing. Sporting associations and governments require anti-doping and drug tests to insure fairness in competition. To help you understand better how WADA drug and anti-doping testing works, we have put together this comprehensive description of the process, how it works, substances tested for and what you should expect.

Performance-Enhancing Drug Test History

The use of performance-enhancing drugs is nothing new. In fact, according to Dr. Larry D. Bowers, a renowned historian on Olympic sports, "the use of drugs to enhance performance has certainly occurred since the time of the original Olympic Gamed [from 776 to 383 BC]." Sally Jenkins reported in a 2007 article in the Washington Post "The ancient Olympic champions were professionals who competed for huge cash prizes as well as olive wreaths... Most forms of what we would call cheating were perfectly acceptable to them, save for game-fixing. There is evidence that they gorged themselves on meat -- not a normal dietary staple of the Greeks -- and experimented with herbal medications in an effort to enhance their performances...The ancient Greek athletes also drank wine potions, used hallucinogens and ate animal hearts or testicles in search of potency."

While performance-enhancing drugs have long been used in sports, they give those that take them an unfair advantage over those who train naturally and don’t use substances to increase their abilities artificially. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) started testing athletes for drugs in the Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France in 1968. During the Winter Olympic Games, zero athletes tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. During the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, only one athlete tested positive.

During the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England, more than 5,000 drug tests were administered using the WADA standards created for the International Olympic Committee. Out of all the tests administered, nine (9) resulted in adverse or positive findings. Those athletes that tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs were all barred or disqualified from participating in their respective events.

Not all athletes will be required to undergo anti-doping or drug testing. However, athletes never know when WADA, the IOC or another governmental or sports agency may a request a random drug test with little or no advance notification. Nevertheless, if you compete in competitive sports, you should expect to be tested at least once (and usually much more often.) The 5051 WADA drug tests administered during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games represents nearly half of the 10,500 athletes who competed and represented countries in London.

Athlete Selection

National and international sporting agencies that adhere to WADA standards (and virtually all do) must follow a strict set of rules when administering drug and anti-doping tests to athletes. According to WADA and other international standards, an athlete can be selected for testing any time and at any location.

Because resources for testing are often limited, WADA-affiliated agencies must allocate them efficiently. Therefore, agencies generally allocate testing resources based on several factors: physical demands of a sport, history of doping or drug use in the sport, training periods and the competition calendar. Consequently, athletes who participate in physically-demanding sports such as swimming or weightlifting are much more likely to be tested that those who engage in archery or shooting competitions. Nevertheless, authorized testers can -- and often do -- test any athlete from any discipline at any time.

When an athlete is selected for testing, a WADA-authorized Doping Control Officer (DCO) or chaperone notifies the person in person that he/she has must submit to anti-doping or drug screening. After being informed personally, the athlete must then sign a document acknowledging the fact he/she was notified. The athlete must also acknowledge the requirement to provide a sample of blood, urine or both. After being notified of the testing requirement, the athlete must remain in direct sight of the DCO or chaperone until the testing is complete.

When an athlete is selected for testing, and before sample collection begins, he/she along with the DCO must complete a number of forms that identify the athlete, specify the date of the collection and provide other pertinent details regarding the collection process.

Blood Testing

If an athlete is required to submit a blood sample, a Blood Collection Officer (BCO) will accompany the DCO to withdraw and collect the specimen. All BCOs must be qualified phlebotomists and wear scrubs, lab coats or other professional medical attire during the collection process.

Before giving a blood sample, athletes are presented with several sealed security kits from which to choose. After selecting a security kit, the athlete is given a chance to inspect it to ensure its integrity and that it has not been tampered with or is not defective.

The integrity and security of an athlete's blood sample is very important. Therefore, WADA sets forth strict guidelines and protocols for the collection of blood samples from athletes. After the athlete selects a security kit and inspects it, the DCO then directs the BCO to collect the blood samples and secure all tubes in their respective security bottles. After the BCO secures the bottles, the DCO and athlete both then check the lids to ensure they cannot be opened by turning them counterclockwise. If the bottles are able to be opened manually, then a new security kit must be chosen. If the lids cannot be opened, the bottles are then sealed in clear transport bags for shipment to the testing laboratory.

Urine Samples

Just as is the case with blood testing, athletes are given an opportunity to select their own security kits before samples are collected. With urine tests, though, the presence of a Blood Control Officer is not required and the DCO or chaperone is the only official required to present.

When an athlete is required to provide a urine sample, the DCO or authorized chaperone must be of the same gender. A DCO of an opposite sex is never allowed to collect a urine sample from an athlete.  Once the athlete selects and inspects a security kit, the DCO or chaperone leads him/her to a private area for the sample collection. While in direct sight and supervision of the DCO or chaperone, the athlete must lift his/her shirt up to mid torso and lower his/her pants down to mid-thigh level. Then, the athlete must provide a urine sample in the collection bottle of at least 90ml. While urinating in the collection bottle, the athlete's genital area and the urine stream must be in direct and continuous sight of the DCO or chaperone at all times.

After the athlete fills the collection bottle to the required level, the DCO then instructs him/her to secure the bottle with the lid immediately. The DCO or chaperone then takes possession of the bottle and secures it in a clear transport bag for shipping. Afterwards, the athlete can get dressed.

If the athlete is a minor, he/she may be accompanied by an athlete representative during all times of the collection process, except when he/she is actually passing urine into the collection bottle. If the minor athlete opts not to have a representative present, the DCO or chaperone usually elects ask a third party to be present instead. Regardless if an athlete representative or third party, he/she cannot witness the passing of the urine. The representative or third party is there only to witness the behavior of the DCO or chaperone during the passing of the urine by the athlete.

Sample Testing

After a selected athlete submits a blood or urine sample, it is shipped to a WADA-approved and certified testing laboratory.  The DCO or chaperone is responsible for making sure that the sample arrives at the laboratory in a timely manner and is secure during the transport process. It may take a few days or more for the laboratory to receive the samples, perform the tests and return the results.

Once the laboratory completes testing of the sample, the results are forwarded to the athletic association or agency that requested the test. The athlete is then notified of the test results and any subsequent sanctions if warranted by a positive or adverse finding.

It is important to note that WADA requires member agencies and laboratories to maintain documentation on sample collection sessions, results and violations for a minimum of eight years. Documentation regarding samples must be available to athletes for appeals or to agencies for review during the entire mandated period.

Banned Drugs and Substances

The WADA Prohibited List provides information on all banned drugs, substances and methods. All WADA-accredited agencies use the list to determine if substances found in athlete samples are allowed or prohibited.

The WADA Prohibited List covers all common steroids, stimulants and other performance-enhancing drugs. However, the list also defines many relatively unknown drugs as substances as being banned as well. While not nearly an exhaustive list, the WADA Prohibited List prohibits athletes from taking any substances defined as or known to be a non-approved substance, anabolic agent, growth factor or hormone, beta-2 agonist or hormone or metabolic modulator. For a more detailed account of substances or methods banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, see our WADA Prohibited Substances and Methods page here.


WADA itself does not impose sanctions on athletes that test positively for performance-enhancing drugs. However, other national and international sports agencies (i.e. the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee) do sanction athletes who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs after WADA-accredited testing.

Sanctions for positive drug or anti-doping tests range in severity from public warnings to multi-year suspensions from participating in competitions. Other common sanctions include "loss of results," which means that the athlete's results, record or standing in competitions may be cancelled or voided. In many cases, an athlete who won a medal or prize in a completion (and then subsequently tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs,) must surrender the medal or prize and have his/her victory declared null and void. In serious cases, athletes may even be barred from competitive sport for his/her entire life.

WADA-accredited agencies also impose sanctions on athletes who refuse to submit to drug or anti-doping testing. When an athlete refuses to submit to a blood or urine collection, penalties or sanctions are often as severe as positive test results. Additionally, selected athletes may be required to register with their respective groups and provide their whereabouts at all times. Whereabouts requirements are designed to provide agencies with the ability to test certain athletes any place at any time. If an athlete is required to provide whereabouts information, failure to do so often results in penalties and sanctions similar to those imposed for positive test results.


Information for the informed athlete:

Drug Testing In Sports

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