HONG KONG (Reuters) - Humans are not the only Olympic competitors facing stricter doping checks at August's Games; horses, too, will undergo record numbers of tests at Hong Kong's top laboratory when the city hosts equestrian events on behalf of Beijing.
While disgraced athletes such as Ben Johnson and Costas Kenteris have hogged the headlines at previous Olympics, the genteel world of equestrian competition has also seen its reputation tarnished by doping at the Games.
With that in mind, the sport's officials will rely on the expertise of Hong Kong's Jockey Club to carry out more tests and produce the results more swiftly than at any previous Olympics.
The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) says it will test 50 to 60 of the 225 or so competing horses, with swifter turnaround times and more comprehensive tests expected.
Hong Kong's top horse racing anti-doping laboratory, run by the Jockey Club, carries out 18,000 equine tests each year in the racing-mad city which took on the Olympic events after Beijing was unable to guarantee a disease-free zone for horses on the mainland.
"This is definitely one of the most tested places in the world," said Andreas Schutz, a top trainer in Hong Kong who has worked in Germany, England, France and the United States.
Officials hope Hong Kong's reputation for heavy testing will help to keep the sport clean during the August 8-24 Games.
"If more people know about our (drug-testing) capability it'll be like the situation in Hong Kong for horse racing where the number of positive tests is extremely low," said Terence Wan, the head of the Hong Kong laboratory.
"Our record is very good, we find a lot of drugs that are missed by other labs," Wan, whose facility is one of only four reference laboratories recognized by the FEI worldwide, told Reuters.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, four horses tested positive for banned substances, including two gold medalists.
German rider Ludger Beerbaum and his showjumping team were stripped of their gold medal after his horse Goldfever tested positive, while Irish showjumper Cian O'Connor lost his country's sole gold medal after his horse Waterford Crystal failed a drug test.
"I think that Athens woke up many people who maybe were not 100 percent careful but were only 98 percent careful," said Soenke Lauterbach, a Hong Kong-based equestrian expert who will head Germany's powerful equestrian federation after the Olympics.
"Hopefully we will not have these cases in Hong Kong because everyone knows what they have to do and (will) stick to the procedures."
Debate has long raged in the equestrian community over whether the FEI should ease its zero tolerance policy, with riders, including those in Athens, often denying cheating and blaming innocuous-seeming medication used to treat horses.
Beerbaum said he had applied a skin ointment to his mount which might have been approved had he first approached the FEI's veterinary commission to obtain an exemption.
Lauterbach said that while riders such as Beerbaum might have been unlucky, negligence was not an excuse.
"If you cross a red traffic light, it's a red traffic light," he said.
Unlike humans, horses are screened not just for performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids but also for inhibitors such as tranquillizers which can be used to calm fitful horses.
Elective testing of horses will be offered for the first time at an Olympics, to reduce the risk of horses unwittingly falling foul of the law.
Hong Kong, a leading horse-racing hub in Asia, has pumped more than $150 million into building one-off Olympic equestrian competition and training venues.
It will offer state-of-the-art, air-conditioned stables and training facilities for horses to counter its summer heat and humidity which have already prompted the withdrawal of Switzerland's dressage team.
Editing by Clare Fallon