Newton case should give cheats sleepless nights
The scientists at Kings College Drug Control Centre in London don't seem an emotional lot, but I reckon there was more than a frisson of excitement when, for the first time anywhere in the world, a test for Human Growth Hormone showed up positive.
The drug testers strove for years to come up with a test that works, is reliable and legally watertight. Just before the Athens Olympics in 2004, such a test was signed off and brought into play.
It had limitations. Still does. Its effectiveness is fairly limited over time. Not quite as bad as having to take the sample when the needle's just come out of the skin, but not far off.
To catch someone, you'd have to test them within a couple of days of them taking HGH. That meant those abusing it could calculate the odds. Anyway, up until 24 November last year, everyone who's taken it has got away with it, apart from those stupid enough to be caught with it in the pockets of their tracksuit bottoms.
Super League player Terry Newton has been banned for two years after testing positive for HGH
HGH does what it says on the tin. It works in a similar way to steroids, promoting muscular growth, speeding up recovery from injury, short-cutting a way to bulk and strength. Unlike most steroids, it's not easy to detect. The human body naturally produces the hormone, while telling the synthetic versions apart from their genuine cousins has been a proper scientific challenge.
The blood test which caught out former Great Britain rugby league star Terry Newton last November has changed things. Now athletes who've been assuming the testers are bluffing have been called. The World Anti-Doping Agency cannot contain its delight. It understands the importance of the first analytical positive.
"It sends a strong message to those athletes who take the risk to misuse HGH that we will ultimately catch them," said David Howman, Wada's director general. "I suggest to cheaters to keep in mind that the Wada code makes it possible to open a disciplinary proceeding within eight years from the date an anti-doping rule violation occurred, and that stored samples can be reanalysed."
Andy Parkinson, head of UK Anti-Doping, told me that target testing and better use of intelligence was helping them narrow down and focus their testing programmes on those thought most likely to be cheating.
"It's tremendously important both domestically and internationally," he said: "It shows we can do it. We always said we wanted to be an intelligence-led organisation. This finding was the result of good intelligence generated internally, and great robust co-operation with the scientific community. Our international colleagues can have confidence they can continue to take blood and they'll get a positive test out of it, if an athlete's been taking HGH."
The policy makers and anti-doping professionals have had a good day. So have the scientists at the Drugs Control Centre at Kings College. After rigorously testing thousands of samples, finally a breakthrough that underlines the importance of their work and their dedication to the task in hand.
"The detection of substances that are virtually identical to our natural hormones has always represented a challenge," said Professor David Cowan, the centre's director. "This shows how science has closed an important gap and further enhances our ability to deter the cheating athlete to ensure the integrity of sport and promote healthy competition."
It would be wrong in conclusion to suggest that cheats are flushing HGH down lavatories all over the world right now, but the downfall of Newton ought to make them think more than twice now about whether they'll get away with it if they carry on.