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BEHIND THE RINGS: Inside the Olympic Movement

No Quick Fix in War on Sports Doping

Olympics: Enforcers step up tests for steroids and other substances as Games near. But many are hard to detect, and results often aren't upheld in court.

August 20, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With the Sydney Olympic Games less than a month away, field testers are knocking on thousands of doors worldwide, checking athletes for steroids and other substances that cheaters use to make themselves bigger, stronger and faster.

The campaign, orchestrated by a new watchdog group, is the most widespread pre-Olympic testing program in history and could ultimately involve half the Sydney-bound athletes.

Acting with unusual speed, the International Olympic Committee also gave preliminary approval this month to a more-sophisticated test that might be rushed into service for Sydney.

These developments provide a rare glimmer of hope in the war on performance-enhancing drugs--a battle that has dragged on for decades and cost millions of dollars while producing few victories.

But even with the surprise visits, skeptics claim, the IOC has a history of testing halfheartedly and, in some cases, covering up positive results to avoid embarrassment. And even with a new test on the way, researchers say, there remains a panoply of performance-enhancing substances that they cannot detect.

So, experts warn, the Sydney Games could be the dirtiest yet, leaving some to wonder if the Olympic movement is doing too little, too late.

"If this was a football game, the cheaters would be leading, 84-3," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State University professor who has studied drug use by athletes.

No issue cuts to the heart of the Olympics like doping. It runs counter to the ideal of fair play. Fairly or unfairly, it casts a cloud of suspicion over any highly successful athlete. With so many reports of doping, can television viewers really trust that the extraordinary performances they will see from Sydney are the result of hard work and athletic talent, not drugs?

Doping also threatens to further erode the credibility of the IOC, which has the ultimate responsibility for putting on clean Games and is struggling to emerge from last year's Salt Lake City corruption scandal. And, some experts believe, untold numbers of athletes are risking their health by taking drugs in their quest for gold.

"You have to create a deterrence factor," said Frank Shorter, an Olympic marathon champion who has become an anti-doping activist. "If you can create uncertainty among the cheaters, that would be wonderful."

Weak Enforcement

Performance-enhancing drugs are reputed to have been part of the Games since ancient Greece, when athletes sought an edge by eating psychedelic mushrooms.

In the early 1900s, marathon runners swilled brandy and took strychnine. Later came caffeine and amphetamines. Then steroids.

Today, researchers say it is impossible to know how many cyclists, runners and swimmers are doping. Traditionally, tests have been performed only at competitions, so cheaters dope before and after. They take agents such as diuretics, which increase the production of urine, to mask the drugs in their systems.

Estimates of drug use among athletes range wildly, from 10% to 99%.

"Mind you, there are people who are very gifted and have morals and won't take drugs," said Don Catlin, head of a UCLA laboratory that analyzes samples for the IOC and other sports organizations.

"But the grim reality is, there are a heck of a lot of drugs out there," Catlin said. "And they are very influential."

The current menu is tricky to detect, and it reads like alphabet soup.

Cheaters bulk up on human growth hormone (hGH) and boost their stamina with erythropoietin (EPO), both modeled after naturally occurring substances. Though the IOC hopes to have an EPO test in Sydney, there will be no reliable way to check for hGH and other performance boosters such as insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1).

In the past, enforcement has fallen upon a patchwork of groups, including sports federations that test before and during national and international competitions. Some would test for certain drugs, some for others.

The flaws in the system were seldom more evident than last week--after 33-year-old Dara Torres won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

Torres, a three-time Olympian, had been out of competition for seven years. At the U.S. trials, which concluded last week in Indianapolis, she qualified for three individual events in Sydney as well as a relay.

FINA, the body that governs world swimming, has performed hundreds of out-of-competition tests this year. But Torres was not tested before the trials, even though her coach says she should have been to erase any suspicion that she is doping.

"If she's not being tested, I don't know who in the world is being tested," said Richard Quick, who is also coach of the U.S. women's team in Sydney. "She's completely outside the box. She's swimming faster than she ever has in her life."

He added: "I'm very confident that she's not cheating. I know she's not. But why would anyone else believe that?"

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