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High Performance

Thirty years after Munich, IOC battle against doping is far from over

September 01, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The night before the men's 400-meter freestyle race at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Rick DeMont, a 16-year-old from the Bay Area, woke up wheezing. He'd been taking allergy medications since he was 4, and that night he took an anti-asthma pill, called Marax, so he could breathe.

The next morning, before the race, he took another Marax. It contains ephedrine, a stimulant. Ephedrine, then and now, was on the International Olympic Committee's banned list.

But DeMont didn't believe there was any reason for concern. Before the 1972 Games, he had filled out a standard medical form listing medications he was taking, which, he presumed, meant that the authorities had been dutifully notified. He was at the Games, swimming, competing, so everything had to be OK, right? No one had told him otherwise.

That night, DeMont raced, and won, by one-hundredth of a second over Australia's Bradford Cooper. A few days later, however, after easily swimming a qualifying heat in the 1,500 meters--a race in which he was the world-record holder--DeMont was told he had flunked doping control. Bewildered and angry, he watched the 1,500 final from the stands. In short order, he was also stripped of his gold medal in the 400; it was awarded to Cooper.

Thirty years later, DeMont is still bewildered and occasionally angry. At the 1972 Munich Games, he unwittingly emerged as the first high-profile casualty of the IOC's campaign to slow--if not stop--athletes' use of performance-enhancing substances, a cat-and-mouse affair that until the last couple of years has been most noteworthy for inconsistency in effort and result.

For 30 years, DeMont, now a painter and an assistant swim coach at the University of Arizona, has had his reputation stained by the events in Munich. An Australian newspaper story published two years ago, during the Sydney Games, labeled him the No. 2 Olympic "drug cheat" of all time--behind only Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who won the men's 100-meter dash in Seoul in 1988 but was later found to have been using steroids.

In DeMont's case, the fault in Munich was not his but that of U.S. team physicians, who didn't look at DeMont's medical form before the Games and relay the information to IOC medical authorities. Testifying during a congressional inquiry three years after the Munich Games, Douglas Roby, a U.S. IOC member, said he believed DeMont would have had his gold if the team doctor had simply "assumed responsibility for the oversight."

The DeMont case stands today as a reminder of the complex political and pharmacological issues that still--after 30 years--trouble the Olympic movement as the IOC tries to rein in athletes' use of drugs and other performance-enhancing substances. And, as the IOC confronts a new generation of cheaters willing to embrace a host of methods for enhancing performance--revolutionary chemical substances, perhaps even the manipulation of human genes--the DeMont case resonates as an illustration of the value of caution and precision in applying policies and politics.

That the fight against doping is the IOC's oft-proclaimed priority is without question.

"The IOC, I can say this, under my presidency, will be a witch hunter in doping," Jacques Rogge, a Belgian physician elected IOC president last year, said recently. "Zero tolerance. Pushing relentlessly to test, and to catch the cheats. And we support WADA wholeheartedly."

WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, created in the wake of the doping scandal in the 1998 Tour de France, has made what even skeptical experts consider significant progress in advancing the fight against doping. Perhaps most important, WADA represents not just sports officials but governments worldwide. It coordinates out-of-competition testing and monitors IOC testing at the Games.

In the United States, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was constituted to take responsibility for drug testing away from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It took over that responsibility after the Sydney Games.

The IOC and WADA have pursued with vigor the illicit use of the synthetic hormone erythropoietin, or EPO--which boosts red blood cell production, thus enabling athletes to train longer and harder--and earlier this year surprised competitors at the Salt Lake Games with a test for darbepoetin, an EPO variation.

"I will acknowledge that some progress has been made," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and authority on the history of doping in Olympic sports. "I'm using words like 'perhaps' and 'maybe' because they," meaning the IOC and officials at Olympic sport federations, "don't deserve better.

"There's this awful history of them sticking their heads in the sand.... I'm going to have to see them perform for four or five years before I grab my pompoms and start leading the cheers."

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