Unless you know what you’re looking for, Rio de Janeiro’s new anti-doping laboratory is not easy to find. Marooned on a university building site on the artificial bayside island of Fundão, near the international airport, the anonymous white building barely has an access road and is still fenced off with corrugated iron sheets.
Eventually, the area will become the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s (UFRJ) chemistry zone, but for now the lab stands alone, like an ark before the storm, getting ready for the 2016 Olympics.
Within the labyrinthine building, which belongs to the Institute of Chemistry, are new, state-of-the-art analysis labs, tasked with detecting the 10 classes of banned substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list. During the Olympics, those labs will carry out a year’s worth of tests, screening up to 6,000 samples.
The $45 million facility has become a source of pride for Brazil in the run-up to the Games. It also represents something of a turnaround: just two years ago, the country’s only WADA-accredited lab was suspended by the anti-doping organization for failing to meet its standards, prompting a flurry of concerns about the then imminent World Cup as well as Rio’s capacity for hosting the Olympics.
Michel D’Hooghe, FIFA’s chief medical officer at the time, told the BBC in 2013, “This is really nearly impossible to believe, that a country that will organize the world championship, that organizes two years later the Olympic Games, has not the possibility to create an up-to-date laboratory responding to all the criteria for an anti-doping control.”
The lab was accredited by the International Olympic Committee in 2001, and as such received automatic WADA accreditation in 2004. “At the time, it wasn’t a problem for the IOC, but it became a problem for the new doping agency because the analytic demand always grows,” Pereira said.
In 2013, WADA revoked the 20-person lab’s accreditation because its outdated equipment could not handle new sensitivity parameters for certain classes of banned substances.
“The lab didn’t have resources to acquire new technology to be capable of reaching these limits,” Pereira told VICE Sports. “We regretted this, but we never complained about the loss of the accreditation. I think it was fair. I think it’s important to always try to keep close to state-of-the-art levels.”
Doping samples during the 2014 World Cup had to be sent to Lausanne, Switzerland, an embarrassment that prompted Brazil not only to build a new facility but also to create a new technical team.
The revamped Brazilian Anti-Doping Laboratory (LBCD) has an expanded staff of around 100. They moved into the new building shortly after last year’s World Cup final. Following nine months of WADA assessments–including four site visits–the lab was reaccredited in May.
“Given its important role for the 2016 Games, we would expect that the laboratory increases its staffing capacity comprising anti-doping experts and volunteers as Games time approaches, to cater for the greater volume of sample analysis,” said WADA spokesman Ben Nichols.
“In any case, should we have any concerns, these would be picked up through the rigorous ongoing assessment of the laboratory that WADA is conducting. This assessment, which includes laboratory site visits, is vital in ensuring the laboratory is operating effectively and is fully prepared for the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. We have every confidence it will be.”
WADA’s next visit is expected in early 2016. In May, Brazilian Sports Minister George Hilton said in a statement, “There is still some way to go to ensure we achieve the level of excellence required to ensure fair play in all sports. WADA have told us that the creation of an appeals court and the certification of the Brazilian Anti-Doping Agency (ABCD) as the sole anti-doping authority in Brazil are essential, and we are taking steps to ensure we fulfill those requirements.”
“The pressure is on for Brazil ahead of the Rio 2016 Games,” Maria José Pesce, the head of the Latin American and Caribbean office of WADA, said earlier this year. “It is clear that the goal of WADA is to ensure the city has an accredited laboratory, but ultimately this depends on its performance. The will is there, but it needs work to pass through all the technical tests, which are very demanding and follow the standards of international laboratories.”
Meanwhile, recent scandals have undermined confidence in doping controls around the world, meaning extra attention will fall on Rio to host a clean Games.
Among the scandals were the revelations of state-sponsored doping in Russia. According to an independent report commissioned by WADA and released last month:
● The main Russian doping control lab in Moscow was involved in a “widespread cover-up of positive doping tests,” including the “intentional and malicious destruction” of 1,417 test samples that a WADA team had specifically requested be kept.
● Russian athletes and coaches bribed anti-doping officials to cover up positive PED tests, while Russian sport officials extorted athletes under investigation to do the same.
● Russian secret state police infiltrated anti-doping facilities in Moscow and Sochi, affecting “the impartiality, judgment and integrity” of PED testing.
In November, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) provisionally banned Russian track and field athletes from international competitions, which means they may not be allowed to compete in Rio.
Those at the LBCD in Rio have watched the Russian crisis unfold.
“We were shocked,” Pereira said. “It was a scare for us and in reality, we’d like to have a bit more information. From our point of view, it’s all a bit obscure, a bit unclear. We are sorry for our Russian colleagues.
“Clearly for the community, it’s a concern but from the perspective of our preparations, it hasn’t had any impact. We already have enough pressure.”
Security measures at the new lab, one of only two WADA-accredited facilities in South America, are expected to be ramped up as Rio heads into its Olympic year. During the Games, the LBCD staff will be bolstered by 100 additional international specialists as well as 60 Brazilian volunteers, who are currently being trained.
“We’re going to receive the same amount of work in 20 days as we normally get in a year, so it’s really a lot,” LBCD researcher Ana Carolina Dudenhoeffer Carneiro told VICE Sports. “But I expect us to be ready. The team will increase a lot—it’s already increased.”
Carneiro said one of the tests the new lab carries out is for blood doping, to determine whether an athlete has had a blood transfusion of either her own blood or someone else’s, the better to increase blood oxygenation and athletic stamina. WADA also is developing something called the Athlete Biological Passport, which tracks chemical and hormonal levels in an individual over time to suss out artificial biological changes that can enhance performance.
“If someone has received someone else’s blood, it’s very difficult for them to have the same identical profile,” Carneiro said. “The effect is the same as other kinds of doping. They have more oxygenation; they get more red blood cells and have a better performance because of this increase in red blood cells. The athletes who do this most are cyclists, athletes who use a lot of oxygenation.”
Carneiro described some of the test. “We have a solution full of cells inside, and the machine manages to separate them one by one to pass through the detector,” she said. “For us to detect the molecules, we mark them with fluorescent coloring and so it manages to detect the fluorescent molecules. If you do the whole process, it takes three or four hours to complete the analysis.”
As preparations for the Games continue across Rio, the lab is already analyzing samples of qualifying athletes. It is also in negotiations with the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), which had been the former lab’s biggest client, to resume its work in football.
In the meantime, the lab team is confident it will meet WADA’s annual requirement of 2,500 analyses to maintain accreditation.
“We’re very motivated to do the best possible job,” Pereira said. “The Brazilian government and the university are giving full support. I think it will be a very important legacy for Brazil and for our university.”
Originally published by VICE