net.wars: Yellow semen

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 October 2003

I think it's just about ten years since I turned to a chemist I met at a friend's house and asked if it would be possible to create isomers of drugs banned in sports that would have the same effect as the anned substances but pass undetected in the doping controls.

Wendy M Grossman

"Oh, yes," he said. We went on to speculate about the cost of setting up your own chemist in a small lab. And now, apparently, it's happened. I don't know why anyone's surprised. The reason I'd thought of it, of course, was discovering that pharmaceutical companies were in the habit of extending the patents on their drugs by just slightly altering the formula and reapplying. If they could do that, why couldn't someone else?

The one question I had - how you'd find willing test subjects to provide some evidence that your new compound was safe and effective. Some of that question was answered by reading Willy Voet's book on doping in cycling, Breaking the Chain, in which he says he himself acted as a guinea pig in some cases - not for designer substances but for testing to see how long substances took to clear the body.

Of course, if you look around the Net, you'll find no end of discussion boards where people with he-man IDs discuss their experiences with anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. The one I've been reading this week is populated by a load of guys who absolutely set your bullshit detectors going with their talk about muscle gains and girlfriends and their back-of-the-bicycle-shed medical advice. My favorite was the guy who was utterly freaked out because the steroid he was taking had turned his semen highlighter-yellow. The others all rushed round to do the macho thing of, "Yeah, standard side effect ... " and segued quickly into a discussion of how long it took them to notice – in other words, a masturbation frequency competition.

Aside from the content, this online forum works like any other. Old-timers warn newbies to read the board for a while to get the hang of who can and cannot be trusted. Anonymity is, of course, at a premium, since what they are doing – if any of them in fact possesses and takes the amount of expensive drugs they purport to - is illegal. But where else can you go to find out if your anabolic steroids will show up on a workplace drug test, or how long you can safely stay on the drug without a rest period? (These guys talk about their cycles more than women do, trust me.) My guess is these guys would be utterly willing subjects to test new compounds if they thought there was a chance they'd work. Though, unlike elite athletes, they don't have to worry about drug tests.

Reading on the official anti-doping sites, you learn that there is an ISO standard for testing laboratories and procedures, and a plan to extend a single anti-doping convention across all countries and all sports. In other words, we're going to see more of the expensive kind of idiocy that now has people testing bridge players for steroids, which do not performance-enhance your bridge play. If you want to be an Olympic sport, you will have to conform, just as if you want to be in the EU your country has to pass laws supporting the EU Copyright Directive.

My guess is that increasingly the anti-doping fight is going to resemble the anti-spam fight. Increasing amounts of resources will be spent on increasingly clever ways to defeat the Other Side in the battle, which itself is fueled by the fact that there is a market for the product. True, performance-enhancing drugs are not the kind of unwanted invasion that spam is, nor do they affect as many people. But the wider implications do affect us all. Some of the forum guys were talking about taking these drugs as early as high school. As the war on these drugs escalates, we will see increased drug testing at all levels of sports, even though the best athletes are always ahead of the best tests.

Is it possible to create polymorphic drugs, just like we have polymorphic viruses? Where the signature is just different enough to pass the tests? Or drugs that have the same effects as those currently available but clear the body quicker? With the amount of money there now is in top-level sports, it will be worth a criminal enterprise's while to set up a research lab to design such things. Sure, they can't buy TV ads to advertise their existence, but it doesn't take very many satisfied customers to spread the word.

One of the books I've been reading on this subject recently points out that although athletes are conditioned to obey rules, they are also conditioned to obey exactly the rules like little six-year-old bureaucrats complaining that it's her turn to set the table today because they did it yesterday. If an athlete can't get caught – as when accepting a bad call you know is wrong – most will take the advantage. Just like spammers, finding cleverer ways to beat the filters. It won't stop until all athletes are kept on a secure island all their lives and are only allowed out when their careers are over.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).