UK Sport says it “will never seek to win medals at any cost” in response to claims that British Olympians were used as guinea pigs at London 2012 to test an experimental substance.
The claims emerged in an investigation by the Mail on Sunday, which said the secret UK Sport project cost hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money.
It says documents show 91 elite-level sportspeople across eight Olympic sports were given an energy-boosting drink, then at the first stage of in-competition testing in humans.
According to the newspaper, the so-called ‘novel nutritional intervention’ was given to medal hopefuls during competition despite only being available for use in research, and there being no guarantees it would not breach anti-doping rules or that it was free of side-effects.
The energy-boosting drink branded DeltaG was a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring body acid called ketones which had been developed for US Special Forces.
The Mail on Sunday claimed UK Sport, the body which allocates Olympic and Paralympic money from National Lottery and government funding, prepared waivers freeing it of any blame if anything went wrong and non-disclosure agreements banning athletes from talking about it.
UK Sport said it “resolutely refutes any accusation that Olympians were used as ‘guinea pigs’, and finds this allegation both misleading and offensive.”
It said it “does not fund research projects aimed at giving our national teams a performance advantage at the expense of athlete welfare”.
A statement added: “UK Sport invests in expert institutes who deliver research and innovation projects to support the success of our national sports teams. These projects range from designing world-class technical equipment for our athletes, to supporting athlete health and performance.
“Before the English Institute of Sport was established in 2002 and up until 2013, UK Sport worked with research and innovation partners directly before transferring this strategic responsibility to the EIS.”
It said “research and innovation projects” were conducted to the highest ethical standards and within the rules, and the product was given ethical approval by an independent group of experts and was not on the list of banned substances.
UK Sport added: “By its very nature, any performance innovation project is at the cutting edge of science and emerging technology, as any advantage for Great Britain is only possible before it is widely available – as was the case for the ketone ester which became commercially available in 2018.”
It insisted athletes were not put under pressure to take part in any research project or to provide their consent, and that they could withdraw at any time.
“UK Sport is fully committed to developing a high performance culture that is truly inspirational and one that will set us apart from our global competitors – but UK Sport will never seek to win medals at any cost,” the statement added.
UK Sport publishes research details
Following their earlier statement, UK Sport also published more detail on the project “for the purposes of clarification and transparency” that was provided by University of Oxford professor of physiological biochemistry Kieran Clarke.
It said that “the ketone ester was being researched to see if, and how, it could improve exercise performance and recovery in athletes, by helping prevent muscle breakdown and supporting recovery of muscle glycogen.”
It added that by 2010 the ketone ester had “been through all the safety studies required to sell it as a food” in the United States and that it is not a ‘drug’ but a food product.
“The ketone ester was 100% pure and, therefore, contained no banned substances and is exactly the same as the ketones produced in the body from fat and used for energy during exercise,” said UK Sport.
The agency added the studies all “had ethical approvals” and had “nothing to do with seeking to break or push the boundaries of anti-doping laws” and that the World Anti-Doping Agency could see “no reason” why ketones “could not be used in competition”.