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Anti-doping group to show some leniency

It plans to drop rigid stance and change sanction rules for stimulant use that is seen as unwitting.

January 25, 2007|Michael A. Hiltzik | Times Staff Writer

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND — In what appears to be a concession to critics, the World Anti-Doping Agency said Wednesday it plans to grant greater leeway to doping prosecutors and judges to reduce sanctions against athletes accused of drug violations deemed to be accidental or trivial.

The proposed change would apply only in cases involving detected stimulants, but the action represents a sea change in WADA's approach to enforcement.

The agency had held rigorously to a "strict liability" policy, treating as a serious violation the presence of any banned substance in an athlete's body, even at concentrations too low to affect performance.

A Times investigation disclosed in December that WADA policies resulted in numerous instances of severe sanctions against athletes for minor and unwitting ingestion of banned substances. Among the cases:

* Alpine skier Alain Baxter used a Vicks Vapor Inhaler bought in Utah to treat his chronic nasal congestion. Unlike the Vicks inhalers sold at home in Britain, the American version contained traces of a chemical structurally related to methamphetamine, a banned stimulant. Baxter was forced to forfeit his bronze medal won at the 2002 Winter Games.

* American Zach Lund, a world-class skeleton sled racer, was found to have traces of finasteride, an ingredient in anti-baldness medication, in his urine in 2005. The substance had been banned over concerns that it might mask the presence of steroids in urine samples. He lost all his sponsorships and was suspended from competition for one year.

* U.S. sprinter Torri Edwards unknowingly ingested an obscure additive called nikethamide in a couple of otherwise innocent glucose tablets she took at an exhibition race. She was suspended for two years.

The proposed amendment to the World Anti-Doping Code would partially address rising complaints from international sports officials and anti-doping organizations, many of whom have recommended more far-reaching reforms.

"You end up feeling a bit awkward about imposing a two-year sanction on someone who, when all is said and done, wasn't doping," WADA President Dick Pound said.

Pound, a noted hard-liner on sports doping, continued to insist that most doping cases result from deliberate drug use. He also seemed intent on playing down effects of the proposed amendment.

"This is not a free ride for anyone," he said of the proposal for more flexibility in sanctions.

Pound, 64, who will retire from his post at the end of this year, made his remarks at a symposium aimed at outlining for sports journalists the agency's plans for revising the code.

The revision process will culminate in a drafting conference this November in Madrid and amendments remain subject to change.

Pound repeated warnings that doping is a growing problem in international sports and asserted that "doping is very, very seldom an accident."

Significantly, however, he also noted that accidental ingestion "can and does happen."

Pound defended WADA against recent criticism of its policies and procedures, particularly in The Times report. The paper disclosed, among other things, that WADA relies at times on disputed scientific evidence and that its appeals process is stacked against accused athletes who must prove their innocence.

"Don't be fooled by [athletes'] protestations of innocence, of biased appeal procedures, of weak science," Pound said. "The overwhelming number of doping cases are planned and deliberate."

He also contended that trafficking in illicit doping substances has become so lucrative that it has attracted the interest of organized crime.

"We've been told by authorities that the value of the sports drug market exceeds the value of marijuana, cocaine and heroin combined," he said, later attributing the startling claim to Interpol.

However, other statistics undermined the assertion and underscored criticisms that Pound is sometimes prone to exaggeration.

For example, the world trade in illicit steroids, the most common doping compound, was estimated at $400 million in 2005, according to figures posted online by the University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research. By contrast, the combined trade in marijuana, cocaine and heroin in 2003 was estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at nearly 1,000 times that amount -- about $322 billion in retail value.

Officials at Interpol, the international police agency's headquarters in Lyons, France, could not be reached late Wednesday.

WADA's proposal to relax the strict liability rules involves removing certain drugs, chiefly stimulants, from its list of banned substances -- those for which the presence in any concentration in an athlete's urine sample is treated as a doping violation -- and moving them to its less restrictive list of "specified substances," the sanction for which can be as light as a public warning.

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