LONDON -- It's the conundrum of any Olympic Games where anti-doping efforts are concerned: On a scale of zero to a lot, what's the ideal number of positive tests?
None sounds good, but would also spur talk that the system is rigged.
A lot sounds bad, because it would represent backsliding rather than progress.
A few is likely the right answer -- enough to prove that the elaborate infrastructure required to process between 5,000 and 6,000 samples in a month's time is effective, at least in spots.
The London Olympics will be the third Summer Games and fifth overall since the World Anti-Doping Agency code went into effect in 2004 and harmonized banned substances and the sanctions they carry globally. Hard experience has taught WADA officials to be restrained in their proclamations about how much cleaner each Games will be compared to its predecessor.
WADA's leadership Wednesday confirmed the most obvious advance for this edition. A new blood test for human growth hormone known as the biomarker method and approved just weeks ago after extensive scientific review will be employed in London, along with the old one. The new method will expand the window of detection from mere hours to "weeks,'' according to WADA director general David Howman. If it lives up to its promise, researchers will have solved one of their most vexing issues of the past decade.
HGH has long been thought to be one of the most widely used performance-enhancing drugs across sports because it aids in building muscle mass and recovering from exertion and injury. It has cropped up in numerous criminal investigations and anecdotal evidence in sports from cycling to baseball. Yet there have been only a handful of actual positive tests for HGH because of how quickly the synthetic version becomes indistinguishable from the form naturally produced by the body. Additionally, there is no accepted urine test, and the vast majority of samples collected worldwide are urine and not blood.
The new test could change all that here in London, yet there has been no ballyhooing from the authorities, who chose to be discreet (until they were directly questioned) and wait to see how many scofflaws are caught. In-competition testing for athletes named to Olympic rosters began on July 16.
Howman, a self-described cynic who resists generalizations, did not want to portray the new test as a magic bullet. Reporters swarmed him after a formal news conference, asking what kind of milestone the new method represents. "It's another one,'' Howman said. "Every milestone is significant if it ends up in catching someone who is getting away with cheating with impunity. I wouldn't want to rate any one of them above another."
The old test was performed sparingly, in part because anti-doping authorities in a number of countries and sports leagues said it was too costly. Howman wouldn't go into specifics about the relative expense of the new test but added, "I don't think cost should be an excuse. What we have to do is prove that money is being used effectively and efficiently. That's what we're trying to do."
Any new weapon in the laboratory arsenal is an asset, but the institutional checks and balances on cheating are only as good as the weakest link, and London organizers have tried to weld those shut, too.
At each Olympic Games, the staffing required for doping controls is the responsibility of the local organizing committee, which is in turn overseen by the International Olympic Committee. That means LOCOG has to provide personnel for a variety of roles, from the "chaperones" who keep an eye on athletes from the second they win a medal (or are selected for testing regardless of their result) and escort them to the space where they give samples, to the doping control officers who actually collect and secure the samples, to the lab staff itself.
From all indications, LOCOG has done a thoughtful job of preparing for the onslaught. The organizers contracted with the independent national anti-doping agency, UKAD, to train both chaperones and doping control officers. That may sound like a no-brainer, but those "jobs" are actually done by volunteers, and in past Games, a spotty understanding of procedures and ethics -- not to mention some cultural and language barriers -- has occasionally caused problems.
"Everyone has a slightly different interpretation" of international rules, Nicole Sapstead, UKAD's director of operations, told me in April. "Our goal over the last eight months was to get everybody up to the same standard and make sure they're 'fit for purpose.'"
LOCOG issued invitations to U.K.-based doping control officers but also contacted their counterparts around the world. Five hundred applied, and roughly half were accepted after a rigorous weekend of training, education and simulations. (One-quarter of the total corps are from the host country.) Most of the 500-plus chaperones, who also had to pass muster in training sessions, will come from the United Kingdom.
King's College in London, the only WADA-accredited lab in the country, has a world-renowned staff but didn't have the capacity to process the number of tests that will be conducted here. Instead, LOCOG secured sponsoring from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which has dedicated a 47,000-square-foot facility to the lab operation at its corporate location in Harlow, about 30 miles outside of London. Some of the lab facilities will remain in place after the Games. Scientists from King's College, joined by other anti-doping specialists from around the world, will do the actual sample analysis.
Which brings us back to the question of how many positive tests are too many for comfort and how few are not enough. Unlike the work that will go on in the lab over the next few weeks, there's no scientific way to answer that.
"I don't know what a good number is, and I don't know that there is a good number,'' Jonathan Harris, head of anti-doping for LOCOG, told me this spring. "But I think probably zero is not a good number. We live in a certain world and people would suspect that our systems weren't working, that there was a conspiracy, a cover-up, we're throwing them all into the Thames or in the sewers or the lab doesn't work or something like that.
"I would really love it if there were zero because I know hand on heart we've done everything we could, and if the lab can detect it, if it's detectable, we will detect it."