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Alexandre de Merode, 68; Prince Led Olympics' Anti-Drug Effort

November 21, 2002|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

Prince Alexandre de Merode of Belgium, who for more than three decades served as the International Olympic Committee's point man in a "war" on athletes' use of performance-enhancing drugs, has died. He was 68.

De Merode died Tuesday night in a Brussels hospital. The cause of death was not announced. He was known to have lung cancer.

De Merode had been an IOC member since 1964; only two current IOC members have served longer. His hereditary title of "prince" has been passed down for generations in his family; he was not a member of Belgium's royal family.

IOC President Jacques Rogge, a fellow Belgian, issued a statement that called De Merode "a fervent defender of Olympic values throughout his life." Juan Antonio Samaranch, who headed the IOC from 1980 to 2001, said that during his presidency De Merode was "the first and the most important fighter against doping."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 22, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 18 inches; 658 words Type of Material: Correction
De Merode obituary -- The obituary of Alexandre de Merode in Thursday's California section stated that he was born in Etterbek, Belgium. The correct spelling is actually Etterbeek.

De Merode served on the IOC's policymaking executive board from 1980 to 1990. He was an IOC vice president twice, in 1986-90 and 1994-98.

Born in 1934 in Etterbek, Belgium, De Merode was conversant in English but preferred to speak French. He was not a doctor but for 35 years he served as chairman of the IOC's medical commission -- charged with blunting athlete use of muscle-building steroids and other substances.

Don Catlin, head of the UCLA lab that oversaw drug tests at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as well as the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, said Wednesday that De Merode had "enormous commitment and integrity" and "took on this issue when nobody else even thought about it."

In 1988, the commission found Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson guilty of doping after he had won the 100-meter race at the Seoul Olympics. Johnson, who had used steroids, was stripped of his medal.

In recent years, De Merode's commission repeatedly sounded warnings about the disturbingly high rate of asthma reported by world-class athletes as well as athletes' expanding use of nutritional supplements. Certain asthma inhalers contain performance-enhancing stimulants. Some supplements have been found to contain the steroid nandrolone and other substances banned by the IOC.

Over the last 35 years, however, the IOC's anti-doping campaign has often proven ineffective and De Merode had been accused by critics of being politically ineffectual or willfully ignorant of real life in the world's gyms, pools and weight rooms.

For instance, on his watch the East German sports machine won hundreds of Olympic medals. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was revealed that many of those medals were won by giving steroids to athletes, some as young as 11; the youngsters were not told what the "little blue pills" really were. The IOC has taken no action against German officials or athletes.

At the close of the 1984 Summer Olympics, several test results in De Merode's hotel suite were destroyed in an "accident." The prince maintained that it was the fault of L.A. Games organizers who, he said, were in a hurry to wind things up as the Olympics were ending. Catlin said, "As far as I'm concerned, he never did anything to scuttle or hide or obfuscate any test results."

In the 1990s came record-shattering performances by Chinese female athletes in swimming and other sports; an unusual number of Chinese drug positives followed. Then, in 1998, a doping scandal stained the Tour de France -- underscoring the widespread use of drugs in cycling and other Olympic sports and leading the next year to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Instead of being vigilant and in front of the curve, experts said, too often over the years De Merode and the IOC simply found themselves responding to doping-related crises. "Arguably the response was PR rather than substantive," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and expert on doping in the Olympic movement.

Yesalis added: "I just can't imagine anyone during the last 30, 40 years who played a leadership role in Olympic sport that didn't know how bad doping was."

The creation of the anti-doping agency significantly diminished De Merode's role in the anti-drug campaign. In May 2000, he tendered his resignation as head of the IOC medical commission. He was promptly asked to stay, which he did, but owing to illness was absent from a number of recent IOC meetings.

Services are scheduled for Monday in Brussels.

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