PARIS — The squat glass bottles held the urine of sport’s greatest stars and helped confound its cheating scoundrels. The “click, click” of their locking caps being firmly screwed on was a familiar sound to athletes around the world, on early mornings when sample collectors knocked on their doors and at doping control stations at the Olympic Games, World Cups and other major events.
But now, after two decades of behind-the-scenes service to the cause of clean sport, Berlinger bottles are joining the list of victims of Russian skullduggery.
The Swiss company’s announcement this month that it will no longer manufacture the bottles used for the vast bulk of the 300,000 drug tests conducted annually in global sports has shocked the anti-doping community and set off a scramble to source replacements, because without trustworthy bottles, there can be no trustworthy tests.
Berlinger’s withdrawal from the niche market it dominated isn’t entirely surprising.
By finding ways to sneakily uncap Berlinger bottles, so Russian cheats’ dirty samples could be swapped out with clean urine at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and other competitions, Russian secret service agents wrecked faith in a product that had, until then, been anti-doping’s Fort Knox and damaged the reputation of the small, 153-year-old family-run Swiss company that prides itself on quality and reliability (staff motto: “You can count on me!”)
The key role FSB agents played in sport’s biggest recent doping scandal was documented in probes led by Canadian doping investigator Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency. Whistleblowing Russian former lab director Grigory Rodchenkov said FSB tools for unpicking the bottles’ security locks looked similar to the thin metal instruments used in dentistry. FSB agents’ tampering left small tell-tale markings later spotted by forensic scientists, helping to prove that the supposedly secure bottles had been opened.
“When a major power uses its secret services, its technicians, and all of its considerable scientific resources to find a way to cheat material that until then was reliable it’s hard for a company to resist such firepower,” says Mathieu Teoran, general secretary of the French anti-doping agency. “I can’t cast stones at Berlinger because Russian secret services managed to open their products.”
Berlinger rolled out a new generation of bottles with additional security features last year. But it then suffered another setback when WADA announced shortly before the Winter Olympics this February in South Korea that the new bottles appeared to be flawed and that some could be opened manually without leaving evidence.
Berlinger rushed replacement bottles, based on an earlier model, to the IOC for use at the games. But that episode, plus other recent cases of bottles cracking when frozen, proved to be final straws. Production of Berlinger anti-doping kits, first used internationally at the soccer World Cup in 1998 and at every Olympics since 2000, has ceased. The company plans to concentrate instead on its production of cold-chain temperature monitors for the storage and transport industries.
“The focus on these anti-doping bottles got so big,” says Berlinger spokesman Hans Klaus. “If everybody is just finger-pointing at Berlinger if there is a doping case you get — how shall I say? — a reputation which is not only bad but a reputation which is ambivalent, so it’s not good for the whole business.”
Because its bottles were used for about 80-90 percent of tests, the market leader’s departure leaves a void that could be catastrophic for anti-doping if not quickly filled. Berlinger’s remaining stock of less than 100,000 bottles should be able to keep the system going “for three to five months,” including the World Cup in Russia, Klaus says. The urgent task of sourcing replacements will be one of the hottest topics at a meeting of anti-doping leaders in Lausanne, Switzerland, this week.
“One of the lessons from this is that the heavy reliance on a single manufacturer has proven to be a problem,” says Graeme Steel, CEO of the iNADO umbrella group of anti-doping organizations. Berlinger was the “gold standard” and “a huge hole that we have to fill.”
Several would-be replacements are gathering in the wings. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says it is working with Major League Baseball on a new range of tamper-resistant urine sample containers scheduled for release in months. There’s a new research project in Sweden, too.
Best placed might be Versapak, a lesser-known British company that already makes doping control products. It says it is working with WADA and Britain’s anti-doping agency on a new kit for transporting urine samples, with a launch delayed to later this month.
Either way, Berlinger and Russia’s role in its departure won’t be quickly forgotten.
“They were really very much part of the anti-doping community,” says Steel. “They are collateral damage of that Russian doping program.”