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September|October 2004
Making The Partner By Justin Dillon
Above It All By Amy Sullivan
Peter Ambrose, Bladder Cop By Ben Goldstein
The Beagle Brigade By Will Potter
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

Peter Ambrose, Bladder Cop

Testing athletes' urine is his business, and business is brisk.

By Ben Goldstein

WHEN DR. PETER AMBROSE ARRIVES AT HIS DESTINATION—a training room, a locker room, a classroom, or a hotel conference room—he sets up two tables, one with beakers and barcodes, the other with vials and a refractometer, which measures the concentration of a liquid. Then a randomly selected student-athlete arrives and picks a beaker and a barcode. Ambrose scans the barcode and enters some information into his computer, and the two enter the adjoining bathroom. The athlete lifts up his shirt to prove the absence of catheters, bags, or other devices, drops his pants, and urinates into the beaker while Ambrose watches. To the athlete, the event represents a periodic inconvenience, or perhaps a reason to be nervous. To Ambrose, it's just another day at the office.

Testing urine is Ambrose's business, and business has picked up these days. During this year's State of the Union address, George W. Bush called for an end to performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and an enormous doping scandal surrounded a number of American Olympians, including world-champion sprinters Kelli White, Marion Jones, and "world's fastest human" Tim Montgomery.

Ambrose, a professor at the School of Pharmacy at the University of California in San Francisco, teaches clinical pharmacokinetics, the study of how drugs are processed in the human body. He is one of about three dozen "crew chiefs" (drug test coordinators) who serve as independent contractors for the National Center for Drug Free Sport, the organization that handles drug testing of college football players and track-and-field athletes. Beginning this fall, the NCDFS is planning to expand drug testing to all sports. Ambrose has worked as a crew chief for 17 years, and twice served as an Olympic "doping control officer." He takes pride in his vigilance, having learned to spot the tricks that some of his subjects employ.

Some athletes believe they can sucker the system by buying kits off the Internet that promise athletes they can be "drug-free," that those who take illegal substances can get a negative test result. The kits encourage athletes to drink more and more water as test day approaches, and to take the included capsules two hours before the test. The capsules color the diluted specimens yellow to pass them off as the real thing. But it's the concentration, not the color, of the specimen that matters—and athletes cannot leave the testing station until they provide a sufficiently concentrated sample.

A diluted sample raises a red flag, but it is not conclusive. Lots of athletes, particularly long-distance runners, are trained to drink a lot of water. Ambrose jumps to no conclusions, and simply requests another sample. "I just dump it, and start over again," he said. "I think the record is like 18 specimens before a crew chief got one that was concentrated enough. My personal record is probably in the low teens."

Athletes are used to having to perform under pressure, but even the best of them have trouble producing results with a witness. "We have them stand in the shower to try to relax them," Ambrose said. "They run water, they run up and down bleachers, they ride bikes, all that kind of stuff." It takes a certain kind of crew chief to help athletes overcome what is referred to as "bladder shyness." Ambrose recalled putting a University of Washington lineman at ease in 2000. "He told everyone that I got him to go, and specifically asked for me after that," he said. "I got to be his lucky crew member."

Once Ambrose collects all of the samples he needs on a given outing, they are shipped to the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory. (The samples are affixed with barcodes so that the toxicologists in the lab don't know whose urine they're analyzing.) Most student-athletes never hear the results of their drug tests. But if an athlete tests positive, NCDFS's legal relations and policy director contacts the director of athletics at the school, and explains the disciplinary sanctions an athlete will receive and the appeals process. The school then communicates all of this information to the student-athlete. The NCAA suspends for a year any athlete who tests positive for any banned substance.

The prospect of getting caught doesn't stop unscrupulous athletes, however. "The elite athletes are very astute about the properties of these drugs," Ambrose explained. He went on to say that some of them "cycle": They take an anabolic steroid for a period of time and then take a break from using it. He theorized that Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 because he took the wrong steroid: "There are short-acting ones and long-acting ones, and if you take the wrong one at the wrong time, you're dead meat." But doping control officers can't rely on athletes' exposing themselves like this. They have intensified their search for banned substances, requiring athletes at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for example, to undergo blood tests in addition to urine tests. The main reason for this was the increased use of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that boosts the production of red blood cells and is difficult to detect in a standard urine test.

Doping control isn't always a grim business. Ambrose refused to mention names, but he recalled testing the athletes at two colleges with rival football teams. "I'm testing this lineman and he says to me, 'Hey, do you ever test that other school?' And I say, 'As a matter of fact I do.' And he says, 'You gotta go watch Joe, because I hear he puts a bottle of Visine under his scrotum with some kind of solution in it, and he squirts it into the beaker to cheat the test.' And I say, 'Well he ain't gonna do it when I'm watching.' "

So the next day, Ambrose visits the other school and takes Joe into the restroom. "He does the test just like he's supposed to," Ambrose said. "And then he turns to me and says, 'Hey, do you ever test that other school? You gotta keep your eye on Sam. . . ."

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