Games of paranoia in Tokyo ?: Skin contact doping attacks change everything

In the documentary “Doping, a secret matter – how athletes unintentionally become dopers”, ARD doping expert Hajo Seppelt questions the worldwide doping control system. In an interview with about his four-year experiment, the investigative journalist explains how fleeting skin contact can lead to positive doping tests, what possible doping attacks mean for athletes already in Tokyo – and why the entire anti-doping system could collapse. Mr. Seppelt, in your new ARD documentary you undertake a doping experiment that is unique in the world. Can athletes become dopers unintentionally?

Hajo Seppelt: Four and a half years ago we received a message in the ARD doping editorial team that contamination of an athlete – simply via skin contact to make him doping-positive – was possible without any problems. To check this, we started an experiment with forensic doctors from Cologne University Hospital. It took a long time because everything had to be approved by the ethics committee.

What knowledge did you gain?

It was found that all test subjects who were given anabolic steroids using a carrier substance tested positive. And often over a longer period of up to 15 days. These are incredible results.

A simple handshake was enough to transfer the drug?

The test persons were only touched on the arm, on the inside or outside of the hand or on the neck. If they had been athletes, they would have failed doping tests and been banned for four years or more even though they had not doped at all.

What kind of carrier substance is it that can be used to transfer anabolic steroids to other people?

We do not say which substance it is because we do not want to publish instructions for use on doping. But tons of it is made in the chemical industry. An everyday thing that is used quite often. Getting there is relatively easy. The University Hospital Cologne will publish the experiment as a scientific study, then the carrier substance will certainly come out.

What do possible doping attack scenarios mean for athletes?

Athletes may now be even more afraid than they were before. So far, for example, it has been the fear that you will get something mixed into a drink or someone will put a doping substance in your pocket. Now it is much more blatant: there is the scenario that you get on the subway, someone says “Hello” and the next test you are positive. And nobody knows where it came from.

Could that also play a role in the Tokyo games?

I don’t know whether there will be such attacks. But I do believe that the athletes will be scared and will be even more careful. The Corona distance rules play into their cards here. The “Corona Games” may also be games from a different perspective that are characterized by great uncertainty.

You recently said that the Tokyo Olympics will “also become doping games”.

Doping also has long-term effects. In the past year and a half to two years there has been sporadic little or no doping controls in some areas of the world. These were ideal loopholes to manipulate. It is noticeable that in the last year records have tumbled in some sports, in athletics or cycling for example. This is very noticeable and fits the pattern that the doping controls took place to a lesser extent.

Are we experiencing the games with the greatest inequality of opportunity?

We do not know who and how many are doped in Tokyo. But for these games there was certainly not much equal opportunity in advance. The situation is confusing.

Doping attacks, transmission by means of a carrier substance through the skin, pulling competitors out of circulation with a handshake: it sounds like something out of a James Bond film.

When I heard that something like this was possible, I also expected it to have happened or will happen. One of the world’s most famous doping insiders has confirmed to me that he has heard rumors about this over and over again and can therefore well imagine that there have already been cases. There is no proof of this yet – how can you find out if it goes unnoticed? But obviously it’s very easy and undetectable. It’s totally impossible to find out who touched you briefly at one point or another. There have, of course, been numerous other doping attacks in sport, but there was probably no skin transmission.

Which questions does the anti-doping system have to answer now, since the possibilities of fraud seem almost limitless and it is practically impossible to trace the culprit?

With our experiment, the principle of reversing the burden of proof in sport may face a major stress test. So far you are guilty with a positive doping test, there are no limit values ​​for anabolic steroids. The principle that an athlete has to prove in a positive doping test that the substance entered the body through no fault of his or her own is now taken ad absurdum. That was hard to prove beforehand. The intention would now have to be proven even more strongly than before and that is almost impossible in sport. The question arises as to whether sport can still maintain its current anti-doping control system so strictly.

What would have to happen to keep it going?

Of course, the question now arises as to how things can go on in the anti-doping fight if the entire system could collapse. Anyone can claim in the future that they were the victim of an attack. There are of course opportunities to develop new methods and strategies in the laboratory. For example, to see whether there have been long-term use of substances. Or by developing new analytical methods to see how a substance entered the body. But even if you find out, who will say whether someone did it intentionally or unintentionally, or whether you are the victim of an attack? I am curious what happens if someone goes to the European Court of Human Rights. Because a constitutional lawyer told us that the system of sport is no longer tenable under these circumstances.

David spoke to Hajo Seppelt in need.

The documentary will be broadcast this Saturday at 6 p.m. on the Erste and can be found in the ARD media library.