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Tainted Test Case

Swimmer blames his two-year suspension on contaminated supplements, which are a growing problem

March 28, 2004|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

TUCSON — The alarm clock is set for 6 a.m., giving Kicker Vencill time for two eggs and a piece of toast with peanut butter before he leaves his apartment.

The U.S. Olympic swim trials are only a few months off, and he should be headed for the pool or the weight room, should be ramping up his workouts. Instead, he drives a few miles down the road to Home Depot. The hardware section.

Rather than slipping into a swimsuit and goggles, he ties on an orange apron that reads, "Hi, I'm Kicker."

"It's kind of humbling," he says.

The 25-year-old freestyler -- darkly handsome and sleek from a lifetime of training -- is in this predicament after testing positive for steroids last year.

This isn't like the much-publicized BALCO case, in which investigators found discarded syringes and coded e-mails, and prosecutors have charged four men with conspiring to distribute steroids illegally to dozens of high-profile athletes.

Vencill says the substance for which he tested positive -- 19-norandrosterone -- had somehow found its way into a multivitamin he was taking.

As far-fetched as that might sound, contaminated supplements are a growing problem in sports. Traces of banned substances are turning up in everything from zinc tablets to protein powders. After hearing evidence, authorities believe his story.

Still, they gave him a two-year suspension, which is a critical blow for an athlete his age. Vencill's case illustrates the complexity involved in trying to clean up sports.

"People think this is a black-and-white issue," he says. "It's not."

*

It seemed more straightforward only a few years ago, when the U.S. promised to get tough on what many experts saw as rampant doping in Olympic sports.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was established -- funded largely by federal grants, independent of the governing bodies that oversee amateur athletics -- to administer testing and sanctions. Since then, the agency has caught dozens of athletes cheating.

A weightlifter is suspended for three months for using pseudoephedrine. A cyclist gets a year for marijuana. A pole vaulter gets two years for amphetamines.

Although these cases rarely make headlines, experts have been guardedly impressed.

"It's a difficult situation," says Michael Bahrke, a researcher working on a book about the history of doping. "They have honestly done a commendable job."

But when it comes to contaminated supplements, Bahrke says, "that is really a blurred area."

The supplement category is a catch-all for everything from vitamins to complicated powders that claim to build muscle.

In 2001, the International Olympic Committee financed a study that tested 634 supplements from around the world. It found that nearly 15% contained steroid precursors -- a kind of building block the body converts into steroids -- not listed on their labels. These substances, although legal, are banned in many sports.

Among products sold in stores in the United States and on the Internet, the figure was nearly 19%.

The levels detected were low, perhaps too low to enhance performance, but sufficient enough to trigger a positive result.

Officials say that otherwise benign supplements can be contaminated in several ways.

Some manufacturers unknowingly buy tainted ingredients from overseas. Others make a range of products, including powders or drinks that feature steroid precursors.

If the vats aren't thoroughly cleaned, residue from the previous muscle powder can taint the next batch of vitamins coming down the line.

"There are a lot of dirty supplements out there," says attorney Rich Young, a doping expert who serves as outside counsel for the USADA. "You're playing Russian roulette."

Vencill says he has learned this lesson the hard way. It was February 2003, and he was looking forward to representing the U.S. at the Pan American Games when he received notice from the agency.

"He came in pretty upset," says Dave Denniston, a world-class swimmer and his roommate at the time. "He said, 'This has got to be a mistake. I don't take anything.' "

His blood work showed four nanograms per milliliter of 19-norandrosterone, a byproduct of the banned steroid nandrolone.

Vencill -- he got the name Kicker from being feisty in the womb -- hired a lawyer.

*

Four nanograms per milliliter is not very much.

An athlete who has just injected steroids might register in the hundreds of nanograms for several days.

The problem is, when even a few nanograms show up in an athlete's bloodstream, they could be the result of a barely tainted zinc capsule or the tail end of a large, intentional dose that had been taken weeks earlier. Current tests cannot tell the difference.

So USADA officials say they have no choice but to take a hard-line stance. For Vencill, that meant the same punishment as someone who'd used a syringe.

"We have to approach a positive steroid test the same way every time," says Travis T. Tygart, the agency's director of legal affairs.

That goes for intent too.

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