The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

What the Hell is Wrong With Texas?

60,000 Kids Pissing In Cups, Another Bad Idea

In the coming school year about fifty thousand student athletes at some four hundred Texas high schools will be tested for steroids. This is the second part of the six million dollar steroid testing project pushed by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and approved by the 2007 Legislature.

The first round, just completed a few weeks back, cost over a million dollars and saw 10,000 kids pissing in cups. The results: two kids were caught.

But were they really caught? While testing for anabolic steroids was introduced in the 1970s, those tests have never been foolproof. In fact, in a recent study by Sweden's Karolinska Institute researcher Jenny Jakobsson Schultze (and published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism) an individual's genetic make-up can confound results in two different ways.

Tests for testosterone measure two different chemicals found in urine. Testosterone glucuronide (TG) is created when TG is broken down, while epitestoterone glucuronide (EG) is an unrelated baseline measure. TG is the product of an enzyme controlled by the gene known as UGT2B17.

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Without getting too technical, UGT2B17 comes in two varieties and one of those varieties is missing some key parts and thus doesn't work properly. But, as it turned out, a person may have none, one or two working copies of these varieties and whichever is the case effects the efficacy of the results.

In Schultze research, she gave volunteers a single shot of testosterone and examined their urine to see what was what. Fifty percent of those who carried no functional copy of UGT2B17 tested negative after they got the injection, while fourteen percent of those who had two working copies tested positive before they had received the injection.

In randomized testing, this would result in a false-positive about nine percent of the time. Making things even more complicated, the presence of this gene varies by ethnicity. Less than ten percent of Caucasians have no functional copies of UGT2B17, while two-thirds of all Asians are in the same boat.

Which is to say, there's really no proof that either of those "caught" student athletes were actually doping, and there's even less that the second wave of Dewhurst's plan will work much better. Then again, these days, its not surprising to find another Texan spending serious dollars on a war they can't win. I guess if they can find a way to subcontract the testing to Halliburton, well, this circle will be complete.

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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