There is a fatal flaw in the steroid detection methods used by the various sports agencies. That is, in order to test someone for anabolic steroids, you need to know exactly what you are looking for. You can’t just look for “steroids” in the urine, but are forced to test for each specific compound individually. To make things even more complicated, you need to know more than just what these steroids look like chemically before they are administered. You need to know what they are going to look like by the time they appear in the urine, because the original steroids themselves will largely be metabolized into other compounds. For example, nandrolone use is most easily detected by looking for its major metabolites 19- norandrosterone and 19-noretiocholanolone, not nandrolone itself. With this in mind, you need to investigate each potential steroid of “misuse” very closely, and each plan of detection is going to be difficult, and time-consuming, to develop. The past couple of decades have seen a lot of progress in identifying the metabolites unique to most commercially available synthetic steroids. As a result, they are almost all detectable in a urine sample now. In reality, this may still only be a drop in the bucket.
You see, several hundred, if not a thousand or more, different steroids were synthesized and investigated in various laboratories around the world during the heyday of steroid research. In most cases, their anabolic and androgenic potencies were measured, with the same methods that have been used on all of the popular steroids we know today. Only a minute fraction of these research compounds ultimately became commercially available drug products, leaving many potentially excellent steroids by the wayside. This is to be expected in any area of drug research though, as there would be no way for hundreds of similar drugs to exist in the same market. But the early research is still out there, and remains a very valuable source of information for the clever chemists of today.
Some of these old research steroids of the ‘50s and ‘60s still exist today, due to the diligence of underground chemists and researchers. We refer to these drugs collectively as “Designer Steroids”, and they are here only for the purpose of defeating a drug screen. A true designer steroid is structurally unique next to the known anabolic/androgenic steroids, sharing no common metabolites, so as to be undetectable to even the most thorough steroid test. The thought of tracking down metabolites for all possible steroids compounds, to eliminate the designer steroids issue, seems like an impossible task to say the least. Even if somehow this old research were to be exhausted, and metabolites identified for all known steroids, there are still nearly limitless other ways to alter testosterone, nandrolone, or dihydrotestosterone to make unique new steroids. The designer steroid phenomena could obviously present an overwhelming problem to the sports organizations given present drug testing methods. The athletes can easily stay one or two steps ahead, and nobody on the sidelines is the wiser.
At this point in time, the fact that designer steroids exist is no secret to the sports agencies. It became painfully obvious to the IOC (International Olympic Committee) in March of 2002, when the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab detected norbolethone, a potent c-17 alpha alkylated nandrolone derivative investigated back in the 1960s, in the urine samples from a female athlete It turned out to be Tammy Thomas, a 32-year-old cyclist from Colorado Springs. This was the second time she failed a drug test actually, which resulted in a lifetime ban from competition. One of the samples in question was actually flagged previously, with a group of others, because it had extremely low endogenous steroid concentrations (suggesting suppression from exogenous steroid administration). Don Catlin, who runs the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, would connect it to the designer steroid norbolethone much later. The fact that only one of these samples retroactively tested positive suggests that other designer steroids were being used by competitors in addition to norbolethone.
Catlin was able to obtain a sample of pure norbolethone from the drug company Wyeth, and must have been greatly aided by the fact that metabolites of this steroid had been identified in earlier studies. The procedure for norbolethone detection has now been made available to all testing agencies, and unfortunately it is now unsafe for competition. Its value as a designer steroid has likewise vanished overnight. Perhaps it was a bad idea to use a steroid that actual made it all the way to the point of clinical trials in the U.S., as there is quite a bit of information to be found on it (not having the urinary metabolites study would have made things a lot harder on Catlin). Honestly, I can think of a number of more effective and safer compounds to use than this hideously progestational one (ooh, the water bloat). I don’t think the chemist was really thinking this one through very thoroughly, and next time may want to get some help from someone that really knows these agents.
The norbolethone story quietly fell from the public conscience not long after it broke. The number of athletes that ultimately tested positive for the drug was minimal, so it really never evolved into the big scandal that was initially expected. The USADA thrives on negative media attention to steroids, because it leads to more government funding, so no doubt this lack of public outrage was a disappointment. I would suspect many involved were hoping for the global story on par with what happened when Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal during the 1988 summer Olympics. This would be of little matter by January 2004, however, because a much bigger doping scandal was about to hit. It involved the use of the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone, and this time would snare some of the biggest figures in amateur and professional sports. Not just Olympic competitors, but professional football and baseball players were being listed as potential violators. Many household names were being thrown around, including Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, and Gary Scheffield. Over 20 athletes ultimately tested positive for THG, or were specifically named for using it in the evidence. The investigation continues today, so this number may rise. Don Catlin was once again the scientist who helped identify this compound in the first place, as well as a method of its detection in urine. This time around, however, he had a lot more help then he did with norbolethone. THG was actually handed over to the IOC testing laboratory in a syringe, by an anonymous coach who did not approve of its use. With the help of an inside informant, USADA got their Ben Johnson story, and then some. THG was at the center of the biggest organized doping scandal in the history of competitive sports, and would come to spark a more vigorous government fight against steroid use than we had yet seen. The steroid-using community is only now beginning to feel the backlash.
I include these stories not because they illustrate victories for the IOC. Quite the contrary, I believe they underline the major failings in current steroid testing methods. These two incidents logically do not represent the only two designer steroids ever used in competitive sports. For one, we surely cannot expect a 100% success rate for the IOC when we know that THG use went completely unnoticed for months, if not years. Nobody knew anything about this steroid until a sample was handed over to the testing facility, which is the same facility that had unwittingly been passing urine samples containing the same steroid just days before. Were it not for the inside source, THG would probably still be in use today. The norbolethone and THG stories spit in the face of those on the sidelines, who insist that drug testing ensures their favorite athlete is drug free. The fact is, many other potent designer steroids are probably out there, either in the books, or in the gym bags, of many of the world’s top competitors. It may take years for the next designer compound to be identified by the IOC labs, and perhaps only a matter of weeks for a new one to be synthesized once it is. It is a game the drug testers simply cannot win given the tools they have available to them now. We may see repeats of these scandals in the future, but such events will only exemplify the proficiency of those working against drug testing. They show the public the unshakable will of the athletes who are going to use these agents, not the testing agencies that police them.
Wlliam Llewellyn (2011) - Anabolics