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Trying to stay ahead of the game

With the Olympics coming, the battle involving dopers and testers begins anew.

August 01, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Call it dopers vs. testers, Beijing edition.

With 11,000 athletes converging on China in the coming days, the International Olympic Committee plans to collect 4,500 blood and urine samples before and during more than two weeks of athletic events -- a 25% increase from the 2004 Athens Games. Officials will check more than 400 athletes for synthetic human growth hormone, focusing on competitors in track and field, cycling, swimming and weightlifting.

It's the latest lap in the race between those using illegal performance-enhancing drugs and those who seek to stamp them out. Anti-doping officials express hope that a combination of sophisticated detection techniques, frequent testing and old-fashioned shame will keep these Games comparatively free of drug cheating.

"This is of course a cat-and mouse game, but for the first time the cat will be at the same level as the mouse," Dr. Patrick Schamasch, the IOC medical and scientific director, told reporters Thursday in Beijing. "And I do hope the cat will be waiting for the mouse outside the hole."

Yet doping remains a major headache for the Olympics, 20 years after it burst into the open when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal for steroid use.

Five female members of Russia's Olympic team were suspended Thursday by the international governing body for track and field, which accused them of a decidedly low-tech offense, the "fraudulent substitution of urine which is . . . a form of tampering with the doping control process."

The athletes include gold medal favorite Yelena Soboleva, who set an indoor world record earlier this year in the 1,500 meters, and two-time world 1,500-meter champion Tatyana Tomashova.

In other cases, American swimmer Jessica Hardy, 21, of Long Beach, is appealing what her attorney calls a "low positive" test for the banned diet drug Clenbuterol, and still hopes to compete in China, while Jamaican sprinter Julien Dunkley, 32, was dropped from his team this week after officials confirmed that a Jamaican sprinter had tested positive for the muscle-building veterinary drug Boldenone.

Bulgaria withdrew its entire weightlifting team last month after 11 athletes tested positive for steroids, and 11 Greek weightlifters were suspended for doping. Host China banned two would-be Olympians for life, a swimmer who allegedly tested positive for Clenbuterol and a wrestler accused of using a drug-masking diuretic.

Anti-doping officials are optimistic that the blood test for HGH, which was administered on a limited basis in Athens but detected no cheaters, can withstand legal challenges.

"We won't put a test out there if we're not ready to defend it," said David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Still, some sports doping experts worry that as-yet unimagined forms of cheating will take place in Beijing.

"Every year, we think the labs and the testing are getting better, but then along come the Olympics and we find things we never expected," said Don Catlin, who operates the Los Angeles-based Anti-Doping Authority and will help supervise the HGH test. "It'd be lovely to have no positives, but that's not likely to happen. And even if there are less positives, you wonder, is it because we're doing a better job, or because they've found something new?"

Testers have faced pointed criticism in recent weeks from none other than BALCO founder Victor Conte, who says athletes still have numerous ways of beating the system.

Conte, who served four months in prison for steroid distribution and money laundering, says athletes are able to avoid detection by blocking their cellphone numbers or spending the night with friends or relatives. Because athletes may miss two drug tests in any 18-month period, Conte said, "You can still have two strikes and hit a home run."

Conte said athletes can use red blood cell-boosting Erythropoietin (EPO) intravenously, knowing it will clear rapidly from the system -- as quickly as a day. Others can skirt punishment altogether with the legal, and contentious, use of oxygen-increasing tents and masks that can simulate the effects of EPO.

Conte said athletes have taken advantage of a reduction in out-of-competition testing in the fourth quarter of 2007 by both the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Assn. of Athletics Federation.

"It's that off-season training, this strength base, that serves them months later during the competitive season," Conte said. "So, it tells me athletes aren't going to be using now, around the Olympics. They were using when there was no testing."

Travis Tygart, USADA's chief executive, downplayed the reduction of testing. "Volume is something to be considered, but it's not the magic formula," Tygart said. "It's about quality over quantity."

While Conte says he "applauds" Tygart's overall efforts, he said testers can do better at outfoxing the cheaters.

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