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Did USOC Underestimate Enemy in War on Drugs?

July 28, 1985|ELLIOTT ALMOND and JULIE CART | Times Staff Writers

The 11 American track and field athletes who left the 1983 Pan American Games in the wake of unprecedented drug testing thought they were slipping out of the country quietly when they assembled on a humid August night to fly to the United States.

The much-publicized drug bust in Caracas, Venezuela, collared 19 athletes from 10 countries. The charge: use of substances banned by the International Olympic Committee. The most-used drug: anabolic steroids.

That airlift of U.S. athletes--allegedly getting out, before competing in their events, to avoid the testing--was an ending and a beginning in the world of drugs in amateur sports. It was the end of public and press ignorance of what had been an underground epidemic of drug use in sport. It was the beginning of enlightenment, the declaration of a "war on drugs," and a period of uncertainty and fear among athletes.

No longer could the problem be ignored. The "problem" walked off a plane in Los Angeles and into the bright lights of the media and the living rooms of America. Anabolic steroids might have been breakfast cereal as far as Middle America knew.

What the public wanted to know was why had U.S. athletes run from the testing? What of the testing, what were these super-machines and could they really detect what an athlete had for lunch six months earlier? Why did this bomb drop at Pan Am Games? Why the summer before the Olympics? And, most of all, why do athletes take drugs?

Not all the answers to these questions are readily available two years after the drug bust, but the fact that questions are even being asked underscores the heightened public awareness of the problem of drugs in sport. And there is a problem. The sports establishment has, in a fragmented fashion, attempted to combat drug use among athletes. The athletes have sought medical help and counsel. They have also circled their wagons to avoid detection.

Soon after Caracas, the U.S. Olympic Committee gathered itself to act. Within weeks then-USOC Executive Director F. Don Miller announced a wide-ranging "war on drugs" that would include random and informal testing of athletes in several sports, as well as a comprehensive educational program. The offensive against drugs was to be funded by a $250,000 war chest.

The most visible aspect of the USOC's program was its informal testing, which allowed athletes to be tested without fear of sanctions. It also allowed some athletes to use the testing to determine when they were clean. Controversy flared when the coordinator of the USOC's instructional program for elite track and field throwers admitted he had been supplying U.S. athletes with information on how to beat the Olympic drug tests.

Now, the USOC is working toward a new program of testing, incorporating formal and informal testing, but stressing education. The USOC has upped the ante from 1983, setting aside $800,000 for testing leading up to the 1988 Games.

Don Catlin, M.D., the clinical pharmacologist who ran the UCLA laboratory that was used during the 1984 Olympics, has been recently named to chair an eight-person USOC Committee on Substance Abuse, Research and Education.

"The climate is right," Catlin said. "It takes a while for a problem like this to reach a threshold before scientists and others become involved. I think Caracas had an enormous impact in that regard.

"The USOC is clearly very, very concerned. Nobody wants to operate a drug testing program, but it's pretty clear we need it. For testing against anabolic steroids to be effective, the testing has to take place more than every four years. It's a training drug, not a drug taken immediately before a performance."

Catlin's committee has established some guidelines for the testing program, which will be conducted at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"The way it's coming down is this: in the first offense--six months suspension plus additional testing. In the second instance--four years suspension. We'll have a very effective appeals process, that's important."

The international community, while applauding the new USOC effort, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"The USOC has been quite inactive for a very long time, as you know," said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, the International Amateur Athletic Federation's representative to the IOC Medical Commission. Ljungqvist spoke in a phone interview from his home in Enebyberg, Sweden.

"There is still a feeling that the USOC is not, or has not, been active enough," he said. "It (USOC) has to do much more and show that to the world. We feel that they have been more worried about (their) PR image than doing anything important. It was not nice for the U.S. when, after the Olympics, it becomes evident that the cycling team has been blood doping. Much has to be done from their side."

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