Brazil's High-Tech Drug-Testing Lab Reinstated Two Weeks Before Olympic Games

Rio's lab is back in the Games, but remains closely monitored by international regulators shaken by corruption in Russia

Laboratory equipment in the Brazilian Doping Control Laboratory (BDCL) of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil
Photo: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
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After being suspended last month for failing to conform to international standards, Brazil’s only laboratory capable of handling drug testing at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has been reinstated by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). 

The decision, announced today by WADA, comes just two weeks before the Games are scheduled to begin. The lab remains under close scrutiny by the international anti-doping regulator. 

WADA previously suspended the Rio lab in 2013, the year before Brazil hosted soccer’s World Cup, due to obsolete instrumentation. To win back its certification, the federal government poured 200 million Brazilian real (US $60 million) into the facility. 

The investment brought state-of-the-art drug testing instruments to the Rio lab, including mass spectrometers—the backbone of any drug testing lab. Mass spectrometers identify molecules based on their masses and trajectories as they pass through electric or magnetic fields. 

The investment lifted the lab, called the Brazilian Doping Control Laboratory, out of suspension. Neither WADA nor Brazilian officials revealed what had prompted last month’s suspension, which went into effect 22 June. 

Without the Rio lab, Games organizers likely would have had to fly the 6000-plus samples, and some of the athletes who supplied them, to other WADA-approved labs. There are only about 30 such labs in the world; the nearest to Rio is in Bogota, Colombia. 

The Rio lab remains under close scrutiny by WADA, which will be watching for not only technical compliance, but also signs of corruption, which it discovered was occuring in spectacular fashion at the WADA-accredited lab in  Russia, including during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. "We need to completely understand what happened in Sochi so we can put in place some countermeasures to ensure it will not happen again," says Oliver Rabin, science director at WADA, who spoke by phone with IEEE Spectrum

Russian officials have been sponsoring rampant doping in the country’s athletes and covering it up by tampering with samples at the Russian lab, according reports commissioned by WADA—one released in November and the second released Monday.  

The list of accusations is long. Members of Russia’s secret service impersonated and intimidated staff at the lab. Top sports officials routinely submitted bogus urine samples. There was bribery, false identities, and dark-of-night operations.

Following the first WADA report, the chemist who ran the anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, fled to the United States and later detailed to reporters at the New York Times the elaborate cover-up scheme. He has reportedly said he now fears for his life

WADA in November suspended the Russian lab, and is under scrutiny for not responding sooner to whistleblowers. The regulator on Monday recommended that the Russian lab lose its accreditation for good, and that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban all Russian athletes from competing in Rio this year. The IOC said it would order re-analysis of all Russian athletes’ samples from the 2014 Winter Olympics, and at press time had not yet decided whether it would ban all Russian atheletes from Rio. 

The level of cheating discovered in Russia is beyond anything regulatory officials had ever seen, says Rabin at WADA. “Let’s face it: This was the first time we had heard that secret services were involved in tampering with samples,” he says.

In Rio and other future Olympic cities, WADA wants better surveillance of samples, particularly at night, and better tamper-proofing technology on the sample vials. “Already some countermeasures have been taken” in Rio, Rabin says. But the bigger issue is facing the possibility of high-level corruption. “If at every Olympic games we have to face secret services, that’s much more complex on our side,” he says. 

The Rio lab is housed at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Its director, Francisco Radler de Aquino Neto, who corresponded with IEEE Spectrum via email, says he doesn’t think the Brazilian government has “a means” to pressure his university to commit fraud. 

To circumvent the “extremely well-developed” chain of controls established in at WADA-certified lab, “at a minimum, a mob-like operation needs to be in place,” Radler says. High ranking government officials, the national organization that oversees anti-doping efforts, as well as the director of the testing lab and key technicians would all have to participate, he says. 

“In my opinion this could be performed in two situations: Countries with centralized powerful governments and countries prone to corruption at every level,” says Radler. “I would place Brazil as a country with a lot of corruption… but mainly at the congressional and construction companies levels. I do not think that this level of corruption has been able to permeate the whole Brazilian society.”

Is the Brazilian government capable or willing to commit the kind of cheating that occurred in Russia? “Anyone is potentially capable,” Radler says. Willingness, he says, depends on a country’s greed, pride and need to sell an image.  

Coming soon: IEEE Spectrum will take an in-depth look at the Rio lab’s doping detection technologies, and how it is preparing for the Olympics. The Games begin 5 August.

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