Devotion to life, ethics and transparency, are the founding principles of one of the Cuban sports movement’s most important institutions, Havana’s anti-doping laboratory, which on February 13 celebrated fifteen years since its founding.
Teresa Correa Vidal has been working at the laboratory for the past fifteen years and is a pioneer in the fight against doping in the world of sports. In 1982, during the Central American and Caribbean Games in Havana, she was working at the National Center for Scientific Research, when she was asked to work on the collection of samples from participating athletes, together with a group of Soviet specialists for the Moscow laboratory where the analyzes were performed.
“When Cuba hosted the Pan American Games in 1991, I was called upon again and a temporary laboratory was created in the country with a group of Mexican technicians and researchers, who later provided support for what we have today.”
It was no accident that she was sought out when the idea of establishing a laboratory arose. “It was all very fast, with exactitude, without missing a single detail, we worked with great responsibility and a high scientific level. There were full days and nights without leaving, we worked non-stop and we achieved the quality standards required for certification. Then came the IOC accreditation process.”
“Listening to her (Teresa ) is to constantly renew our commitment to the health of our athletes,” stated Rodney Montes de Oca, director of the laboratory for the past three years. “Those who were responsible for establishing this center and securing accreditation pulled off a great feat, as they did it in record time, February 2001 to September 2003, a little under three years, when the rest of the 35 (accredited laboratories) in the world have taken four to five years,” he added.
The center has a total of 37 staff members, fifteen of whom are directly linked to investigation, and of the total, only six are men. Montes de Oca highlights the human and professional qualities of the group, using state of the art equipment. “This has been my only workplace and I can tell you that it is a first-world laboratory in a third world country,” he said.
The institution guarantees the National Anti-Doping Programs of both the Republic of Cuba and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. This year they have also been asked to be responsible for that of Costa Rica. They are now immersed in the preparations for the Olympic Games in Río. “We carry out a systematic control of the pre-selection team, from which our representatives will be chosen. We began as early as the last day of the last Pan American Games.
Deanelys has trained at the facility. Photo: Ricardo López Hevia
The national anti-doping brigade prepared a plan that allows athletes to be monitored on four or more occasions during their training ahead of Río,” the director added.
The brigade provides education par excellence, as it trains doctors, psychologists and physiotherapists. Although there is just the one national brigade, each Provincial Center for Sports Medicine has their own section at this level. The brigade is part of the National Anti-Doping Authority, which is subordinated to the Cuban Olympic Committee. “It is not an entity of the laboratory, it could not be, as this would create a conflict of interest. It (the brigade) takes the samples and they reach us labeled with a number or external code. We give them a new number, which is an internal code, and begin our work,” Montes de Oca explained.
REACH THE GOAL AND MAINTAIN IT
The director elaborated, “the accreditation of this or any other laboratory is for a year (January 1 – December 31), that is to say that we must be evaluated by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) annually.
“We are submitted to five tests. Three of these are blind and two are double blind. The blind test: they send samples and we must identify the substance they contain and the concentration. The double blind: you never find out that the WADA is sending the sample. It could come from a competition in the area where you provide services or an international tournament here, or as a request from a client, but you never know that it was chosen by the WADA. All year round we are subject to reaccredidation,” he detailed.
The anti-doping control process begins with the collection of samples, in two vials,one is labeled A and the other B, both of which contain the same urine sample, from a single urination. The laboratory specialists never know the subject, for them this person is just a number.
“In the WADA investigation, if the sample results positive and sample B results negative, the accreditation is lost, which is what happened in Madrid. If the opposite happens, it is not automatically lost, but the WADA intervenes in the facility and undertakes revisions which almost always lead to the loss. Cuba has never lost its status,” Montes de Oca explained, adding that in addition to Madrid, the same thing happened to the laboratory in Brazil, while Russia just lost its accreditation due to several athletics cases and the Czech Republic gave up its accreditation as it decided to close its laboratory. “Here there is the commitment to maintain our laboratory with high professional and ethical standards,” he noted.
“The most important aspect of our work is to protect the health of athletes, even beyond any cheating, which is of course harmful as it affects the ethical content, the fairness of a competition on an equal basis, and because it is linked to something which for us is sacred, the truth. But I insist there is nothing more important than life itself and that is what we must protect from this scourge that is doping, which is a cancer within sports. Doping corrupts, it discredits the athlete and the sporting movement, but it also kills,” he warned.
COMMON DOPING SUBSTANCES AND METHODS
“The most commonly used substances are anabolic steroids; the most common continues to be stanozolol, which hit the headlines in 1988 in the case of the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. The use of erythropoietin (EPO) is increasing as well as growth hormones, both due to the difficulty of detection, as they are produced by the body itself.
The methods are blood transfusions in two ways: by purchasing heterologous blood, that is, not the blood of the recipient, although of the same blood type, and the other is transfusion of the athlete’s own blood. That is, they take some blood, freeze it, and then transfuse it again.”
According to Montes de Oca, “There are methods to detect the first of these ways by analyzing the number of red blood cells, but the second is very difficult, it can only be detected by traces of plastic, as the blood is stored in bags of this material. However, as our daily lives are full of plastic, one could argue that these traces come from a disposable cup, a straw, in short, from any number of things.”
He adds that the effects can be irreversible. “There are anabolic steroids that trigger liver cancer. The injection of EPO results in an increase in red blood cells, the hemoglobin goes above 20 or 25. In competition, the cardiac muscle has high capacity, as it is under demand, but when resting it is impossible to control and death occurs.” He added that designer steroids are now being used. “Testosterone, nandrolone were usual, but now you come across THG (tetrahydrogestrinone), which caused a scandal with Major League baseball players.
“When we speak of the athletes’ health and its importance in our work, it’s because those who seek to win at whatever cost, or who pursue fame and fortune, are committing murder or suicide. So much so that there are substances that don’t make it into medicines and are already found in anti-doping samples, for example, GW1516 remained at the experimental stage, since it caused cancer in animals, and today some athletes are consuming it in their quest to win at any cost.”
CUTTING EDGE TECHNOLOGY TO DISCOVER THE TRUTH
The director, who also has a degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences, noted that the laboratory has highly sophisticated equipment.
“We have a liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry, which detects substances at very low concentrations. For example: a teaspoon of sugar diluted in an Olympic sized pool. Or clenbuterol, present in cattle: if the athlete eats a steak, the next day he will be testing positive for the substance “.
Regarding isotope ratio mass spectrometry, also in use at the Cuban facility, he said, “I commented that the most frequent cases of doping are substances produced by the human body itself, such as growth hormone, EPO, or testosterone. This equipment is capable, with analysis at the molecular level, of discerning whether elevated levels of testosterone in the urine of an athlete are due to endogenous production or the administration of a synthetic product, that is, of an exogenous agent.”
Due to the use of these elements, which are removed very quickly from the body, such as EPO (only 24 hours) or growth hormone, between four and eight hours, scientists created the Athlete Biological Passport. “In the case of the first (EPO) supplied exogenously, that is by injection, there are 11 parameters that move and it is visible only when this document is used, which contains several previous samples and creates a baseline profile of the hematological indicators. In these cases, use or attempted use of prohibited substances is punishable; although the presence is not demonstrated, it is shown that it was used.”
This knowledge is passed down through the generations and Deanelys Hernández Domínguez is proof of this. “I live opposite Teresa, she infected me with her teaching and love of chemistry, she brought me here, I studied at the technical middle-level, then got my degree, and now have a Masters in determining substances in different states. It’s an honor to be where ethics and the truth are always put at the service of one of the great achievements of the Revolution, which is sports. I am very happy, just like a girl celebrating her 15th birthday.”