• U.S.

Shame Of the Games

13 minute read
Daniel Benjamin

The ugliest story of the 22nd Olympics began in a bathroom in the basement of Seoul’s track-and-field stadium. There, on Sept. 24, a smallish man with a fabulously muscled body and rage-filled eyes had to perform the indignity of champions. A master of explosive, almost inexplicable starts, he had already propelled his body down the 100-meter track faster than anyone before. Now his legs had ceased churning, he had relinquished the flag of his adopted Canada, which he had waved around the stadium, and the applause for the seemingly guileless sprinter who had dethroned the all-too-sleek Carl Lewis had died. Only a urine sample stood between Ben Johnson and a nightlong celebration for the happiest day of his 26 years.

It took just 9.79 sec. to run the 100, but it took Johnson nearly an hour and six cans of low-alcohol beer to fulfill his requirement. At the Doping Control Center of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, it took twelve hours more to assay the day’s samples, to run them through the mazy innards of the lab’s instruments. When the last sample left the hair-thin glass tubes of the gas chromatograph and the mass spectrometer, where all molecules have their fingerprints taken, just one positive result had turned up.

The result was reported to Prince Alexandre de Merode, the Belgian chief of the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission, and he then checked to determine whose sample it was, for it was identified only by number. Frantic meetings ensued, and a second portion of the original sample, which had been stored in a locked refrigerator, was tested. The results were the same: Ben Johnson, the fastest man on earth, had cheated.

After Canadian officials were notified that he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol, a substance that is supposed to help build lean muscle mass, they hustled the Jamaican-born sprinter out of Olympic Village, the cockpit of his glory, and checked him into a Seoul hotel under an ignominious pseudonym. There, at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Carol Anne Letheren, chef de mission of the Canadian delegation, stripped Johnson of the medal he had already given to his mother. “He was in a state of shock,” said Letheren. “He still did not comprehend the situation.” A few hours later he was bound for New York, a runner who had stumbled into a future stained with disgrace.

Positive drug tests, stripped medals and two-year suspensions from play are the familiar furniture of contemporary sports competitions. In the 1983 Pan American Games, 19 athletes were disqualified and an additional dozen from just the U.S. track-and-field squad scuttled home before their events. In the 1984 Olympics eleven athletes, two of them medalists, were ejected from the Games for drug abuses. Before the Seoul Games began, several Americans, including ’84 cycling gold medalist Steve Hegg and national swimming champion Angel Myers, were bounced for banned substances. But no disqualification has ever rocked the sporting world the way the Ben Johnson scandal has.

Part of the reason is that disqualifications have primarily been confined to other, less popular sports — especially weight lifting and field events, like the hammer throw and shot put. But much of the shock is a by-product of the fascination with the 100-meter dash. That most elemental, primordial event is run, at least in the mind, by almost every child on earth, and its Olympic champion occupies a place of honor as the fastest man alive. He is the heir of Harold Abrahams of Chariots of Fire fame, of Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes and Carl Lewis. What other betrayal could mean as much?

It is hard to recall any that has been so passionately denounced. In Canada, a country that was delighting in its first gold medal of the Games, outrage abounded. Canadian Sports Minister Jean Charest announced the draconian penalty of banning Johnson from ever representing Canada on a national team again, calling the incident a “national embarrassment.” Many saw the sprinter as pitiable, and some, like I.O.C. vice president Richard Pound, believed he had been duped as well as doped, saying, “Johnson probably wouldn’t know what a steroid is.” But across Canada spread a sense of bewilderment and anger.

Around the world, Johnson’s disqualification suddenly riveted public attention on the decades-old problem of performance-enhancing drug use with an altogether new intensity. By week’s end the total of ten drug-related disqualifications in Seoul was close to the 1984 figure. But many thought: If this world-record holder would risk detection, everyone must be doing it. Spectators felt deceived and non-using athletes felt gypped. Overnight the Olympics became clouded, suspected of being an unholy chemistry competition rather than the glorious alchemy of will, talent and training that is its ideal.

The image unjustly diminished too many great performances. But fears about a widespread drug problem are entirely justified: the use of performance- enhancing agents is far more common than the number of disqualifications would imply. Dr. Robert Voy, chief medical officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, reports that no-penalty testing in 1983-84 found that 20% to 50% of U.S. athletes were doping. Current formal testing in the U.S. turns up positives at a rate of 2% to 3%. Athletes’ understanding of how to beat the tests by using either extra drugs that mask the performance-enhancing ones or by getting off the stuff in time to clear their systems accounts for the difference. Says Dr. Bertram Zarins, a team physician for the New England Patriots and Boston Bruins: “Athletes are always a step ahead of any testing program.”

For almost every sport, there are some pills and potions that promise black- magic results. To fire their systems up, many competitors have turned to stimulants, using amphetamines or even caffeine enemas and suppositories, because rectal administration puts the chemical into the bloodstream without causing an upset stomach. Testing for “uppers” by sports federations is highly reliable, but use of this class of drugs is not confined to competitions like the Olympics. Some of the most famous cases of stimulant usage have occurred in professional baseball and football, which have lax testing for the substances.

Diuretics are yet another group of forbidden drugs. The Bulgarian weight- lifting team was withdrawn from Seoul after two of its medalists tested positive for the diuretic furosemide. By flushing water from the body, these drugs help athletes reduce weight to compete in a particular class. They are also useful as masking agents, since along with the water, evidence of other drug use is eliminated.

There are rumors of other, still unpublicized, masking agents. At least one nondiuretic that achieves the desired effect is known: probenecid, a gout drug, has been banned by the I.O.C. It became instantly infamous during this summer’s Tour de France. Spain’s Pedro Delgado, the eventual winner, tested positive for the drug. But probenecid did not become prohibited in international cycling until August, so Delgado got away with it.

The index of the athletic pharmacopoeia is long and gets longer. Rare and expensive human-growth hormone can, some say, turn children into massive competitive machines and aid muscle growth in adults. Stories circulate about puberty suppressants that allow gymnasts to keep their finely balanced girlish bodies. But no drugs pose as much of a threat to the fairness and legitimacy of athletic competition as anabolic steroids do. And as the Johnson scandal shows, nothing has so obscured the efforts of honest athletes or has contributed as much shame to the Games.

They are the class of drugs that mimic the effect of testosterone in the body, and they are by far the most widely used performance-enhancing agents in sports. Among other things, testosterone causes the development of male secondary sexual characteristics — facial hair, deep voice and muscle building — and it is to promote the last that the use of steroids has become popular and, in such sports as weight lifting and field events, ubiquitous.

Steroids provide legitimate treatment for certain hormonal and blood disorders, among others, but they have also been put to other ends for decades. Developed in the 1930s, they had their first known non-medicinal use not long after — by Nazi doctors who gave them to soldiers in the hope of enhancing their aggressiveness in battle. After World War II, Soviet sports officials reportedly noted the Nazis’ use, and in the 1950s began giving steroids to athletes. U.S. doctors found out about this and introduced them to American athletes, initiating a kind of chemical cold war.

Steroids do not build muscles directly but rather allow the body to bulk up with training beyond the degree possible with natural levels of testosterone. Or so it is thought. Their actual value is hotly disputed, in part because there are few large-scale studies. Athletes take the steroids in doses much larger than those used for therapeutic purposes, and doctors have been reluctant to conduct research that would in any way condone a practice they consider unhealthy. Athletes have fewer doubts. Dr. Forest Tennant, a California researcher, estimated in the New England Journal of Medicine that “as many as 1 million athletes” in the U.S. alone are using anabolic steroids. Sprinters like Johnson, who rely on large muscles for bursts of power, are believed to be turning more and more to steroids. In football, the remarkable rise in the size and strength of linemen is often attributed to extensive steroid use. In weight lifting and bodybuilding, steroid consumption is pandemic.

The rage for steroids has persisted despite growing indications that the drugs can have harmful and even disastrous side effects. In men, balding, . acne, shrinkage of the testicles and infertility are among the most immediate consequences, though all of those except balding may be reversible. In women, who normally produce very low levels of testosterone and therefore gain relatively much more from steroids, prolonged use can cause irreversible effects like facial hair, deepening of the voice and an abnormally enlarged clitoris. Injuries among users can be more serious than usual, since they often involve connective tissues like tendons that have not grown strong enough to support the increased muscle mass.

Although the research is again skimpy, liver, prostate and testicular cancers have been linked to steroid use, as has the hastened onset of atherosclerosis — obstructed arteries. “In my opinion,” says Dr. Tennant, “young athletes who take heavy doses of anabolic steroids for 60 to 90 days should expect to die in their 30s or 40s.”

Growing evidence also points to the conclusion that steroids, which appear to be addictive, can harm the mind. Dr. Harrison Pope, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., has documented such effects — popularly called ” ‘roid rage” — as mania, wild aggression and delusions in some steroid users. One of his subjects had a friend videotape him as he deliberately drove a car into a tree at 35 m.p.h. Says Pope, ominously: “It appears the serious psychiatric effects are far more common than the serious medical ones.”

Despite the possible harm, the use of steroids shows no sign of abating. It is illegal to obtain them without a prescription, but whether they are stolen from pharmaceutical manufacturers or imported from Mexico, a major producer, they are widely available. Some users receive them from willing doctors. The great majority rely on dealers, who frequent university gyms and health clubs. Some athletes have a hand in distribution: Alexander Kurlovich, the Soviet super heavyweight who won the gold medal just last week in Seoul, was convicted in Canada in 1984 of importing steroids with an intent to sell and was suspended from international competition for two years.

Urinalysis, expensive at about $100 a test, is common only in topflight sporting competition, but even there, as Ben Johnson showed, abuse persists. The only surefire approach, sports officials say, is random testing during the year — a course that many object to as an infringement on civil liberties. Advocates see the Johnson case as supporting their call: the surprise, after all, is not that he used them, but that he got caught.

He apparently did so because of ignorance about advances in testing. According to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, the doctor who allegedly gave him the steroids, George M. Astaphan, did not realize that stanozolol can now be detected. Until last year, stanozolol was hard to observe — a fact that may explain why three of the Seoul disqualifications were for that particular steroid. There was no question about the veracity of the test: in Johnson’s sample, said Jong-Sei Park, chief of the Olympic drug testing lab, “we saw the stanozolol itself and the breakdown products” it leaves in the body.

Confirmation that Johnson had been using the drug for some time, at least several months, came from the very low levels of natural testosterone in his urine sample; the glands that produce the hormone shut down when the system is flooded with the synthetic chemical. Apparently Johnson made it to the Games because of a stroke of luck in the Canadian Olympic trials: two of the top three finishers are tested after each event, and Johnson drew the lucky straw that exempted him.

With the results of Johnson’s test widely accepted, attention focused on how he had been doped. At the center of the controversy was Dr. Astaphan, a general practitioner on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Astaphan has been associated with Johnson for more than five years, and the sprinter spent several weeks this summer on St. Kitts, purportedly being treated for a hamstring pull. Astaphan denied the reports that he gave Johnson stanozolol but did say he gave him therapeutic corticosteroids and subsequently notified the I.O.C. The doctor also became the subject of intense scrutiny. York University officials, according to a Toronto newspaper, were looking into claims that athletes training at the university had bought steroids from Astaphan. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario announced it would investigate Astaphan’s medical practice.

But Ben Johnson was not talking. Before leaving Seoul, he denied knowingly taking steroids. On the flight back he wept, and when he finally arrived in Canada, he retreated to his mother’s suburban Toronto home, where he lives. The well-built edifice of endorsements that had been erected for him collapsed overnight; he stands to lose an estimated $8.2 million. The only light in his personal tunnel, and a lurid one at that, came when Canadian and American football teams announced their interest in his services. The Canadian government promised an inquiry. Nothing less, it seemed, would explain the story of the man who, advertently or not, brought the 1988 Olympics to their highest and lowest moments.

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