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Athletes' Unbeatable Foe

Anti-doping authorities serve as prosecutor, judge and jury. The innocent often pay a high price.

December 10, 2006|Michael A. Hiltzik | Times Staff Writer

The worldwide sports anti-doping program, created to fight performanceenhancing drug use in international athletics, imposes severe punishments for accidental or technical infractions, relies at times on disputed scientific evidence and resists outside scrutiny, a Times investigation has found.

Elite athletes have been barred from the Olympics, forced to relinquish medals, titles or prize money and confronted with potentially career-ending suspensions after testing positive for a banned substance at such low concentrations it could have no detectable effect on performance, records show.

They have been sanctioned for steroid abuse after taking legal vitamins or nutritional supplements contaminated with trace amounts of the prohibited compounds. In some cases, the tainted supplements had been provided by trusted coaches or trainers.

The findings emerge from a Times examination of more than 250 anti-doping cases involving runners, cyclists, skiers, tennis players and competitors in dozens of other sports from around the world.

Alain Baxter, 28, became the first Briton to win an Olympic medal in Alpine skiing, placing third in the slalom at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Two days later he tested positive for methamphetamine, a banned stimulant. He was forced to forfeit his bronze medal.

His offense? He had used a Vicks Vapor Inhaler bought in Utah to treat his chronic nasal congestion. Unlike the Vicks inhalers sold at home, the American version contained traces of a chemical structurally related to meth -- though lacking its stimulative qualities.

Despite testimony from a Vicks scientist that the compounds differed, an arbitration panel hearing Baxter's case ruled that because anti-doping authorities regarded the chemicals as related, he was guilty.

"It never crossed my mind that it would be different from the British one," Baxter told the BBC upon returning home. "I didn't think I was doing anything wrong."

A 17-year-old Italian swimmer treating a foot infection with an antibiotic cream her mother bought over the counter failed a doping test at a swim meet in 2004. Neither Giorgia Squizzato nor her mother realized that the cream's ingredients included a prohibited steroid -- or that applying it between her toes could result in a positive urine test.

Arbitrators in her case acknowledged that "the cream did not enhance the athlete's capacity" and hadn't "favored her performance."

Nevertheless, according to the anti-doping program's zero-tolerance, or "strict liability," policy, which treats an athlete as guilty regardless of how a substance got into his or her body, Squizzato was judged negligent. Her penalty: a one-year suspension.

Stringent anti-doping measures have become a fact of life for the thousands of athletes participating in national and international events since the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, at an international sports conference in 1999. WADA's founding was prompted by a rash of doping scandals threatening the credibility of global sports.

What has evolved to protect competitive purity since then is a closed, quasi-judicial system without American-style checks and balances. Anti-doping authorities act as prosecutors, judge and jury, enforcing rules that they have written, punishing violations based on sometimes questionable scientific tests that they develop and certify themselves, while barring virtually all outside appeals or challenges.

WADA's authority stems from the World Anti-Doping Code, which has been adopted by 186 governments, including the United States, and hundreds of Olympic and international athletic organizations. Under its provisions, athletes competing in sanctioned events are subject to mandatory urine and blood testing at any competition.

Athletes also must submit to unannounced random tests and provide authorities with detailed calendars showing where they can be found at any time, even on vacation.

A test sample is typically divided into two vials, labeled "A" and "B." The "A" sample is the first to be tested. If it comes up positive for a banned substance, the athlete may demand a confirmation test of the "B" sample. If that is also positive, the code allows the agency to declare the athlete in violation of doping rules and impose a penalty ranging from a public warning to a lifetime ban. Generally, the athlete also is disqualified from the event at which the violation allegedly occurred.

An accused athlete's only recourse in the face of a doping charge is arbitration, under rules of evidence dictated by WADA and designed to give the authorities the benefit of all doubt.

In many countries, including the United States, athletes have no right to appeal an adverse arbitration ruling to the courts. In the vast majority of cases, including every case heard in the U.S., the arbitrators have upheld the violation.

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