How drug testing works

Certain drugs are banned by sporting authorities because of the unfair advantage they can give. Drugs like anabolic steroids can increase lean mass, painkillers enable athletes to endure greater stresses, sedatives can help archers focus and even chemicals to mask banned substances exist in the world of performance-enhancing drugs.

Ever since banned-substance testing began at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, it’s been an arms race between new drugs and the methods devised to detect them. The process for detecting a broad spectrum of forbidden substances involves a drug control
officer taking a sample of an athlete’s urine, or sometimes blood, for analysis at a laboratory.

Here, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (or GC-MS for short) are most commonly used to detect drugs. Gas chromatography vaporises the sample in the presence of a gas, with certain substances remaining as a gas for a specific, known amount of time. In the final stage of the drug-testing process, mass spectrometry blasts the sample with an electron beam before sending the remains down a magnetic tube into a detector that can pick up the unique ‘fingerprint’ of each substance.