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The Summer Olympics: Are Drugs Winning the games?

11 minute read
Robert Sullivan with Sora Song

It isn’t cheating if everybody else is doing it.” So declared Canadian track coach Charlie Francis in 1988 when his sprinter Ben Johnson became the Olympics’ highest-profile disqualification ever by testing positive for steroids. But of 8,465 competitors at Seoul, only Johnson and nine others were booted for drugs. What’s this about “everybody”?

Good question, tough answer. You can be sure that many more than 10 athletes used banned substances in Seoul, and many more than 10 will use them in Sydney. Beyond that, there’s little certainty. As you watch the events on the tube, you will have no way of knowing if you are seeing a clean or dirty event, a real athletic competition or a duel between pharmacists.

That’s because, say its critics, neither will the International Olympic Committee. “I think right now every performance in an endurance event is suspect,” says Frank Shorter, the former gold-medal marathoner who is chairman of the new, independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which takes over drug enforcement from the U.S. Olympic Committee in October.

Not so, says Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, the governing body in the U.S. for a sport with a druggie reputation. He insists these Games will be, by and large, clean: “The Olympics are the most tested sports movement in the world. I believe the vast majority of athletes aren’t on drugs.” Counters Shorter: “Anybody can look at a dirty athlete and know he’s dirty. All bulked up. His face changing…” Masback says, “You can’t ban an athlete because he looks suspicious. That’s why there are tests.” And, he adds, “it’s unfortunate [that] old athletes who want their records to continue to shine are shouting about how everyone today is cheating.”

Fellas, let’s move on.

Masback’s arguments notwithstanding, the prospects for cheaters have never been better, because drug testing as it has existed heretofore means little. The I.O.C., fearing false positive tests of clean athletes and subsequent lawsuits in nations that enjoy due process (read, the U.S.), has set its “dirty” bar extremely high. And most cheaters are careful to choose hard-to-detect drugs or stop their intake well in advance of expected tests.

It’s not news that any athlete carefully monitoring his intake could take banned substances and still pass Olympic tests. We now know that by 1978 East German athletes in every sport except sailing were being given anabolic steroids. Yet in 1976 and 1980 not one East German tested positive for drugs at the Summer Games. The country took home a total of 216 medals, 87 of them gold, from those Olympics.

A more recent example: in 1996 the whole world east of Dublin and west of the Shannon doubted that Irish swimmer Michelle Smith was clean, as a hulking version of her prior self had lowered her times astonishingly. Her success coincided with her marriage to a former discus thrower from the Netherlands who had been kicked out of his own sport as a drug cheat. But Smith won four medals in Atlanta, three of them gold, while passing all her exams. She then dodged random testing for two years before being confronted one dawn at her County Kilkenny home. She reluctantly produced a urine sample, which was later found to be tainted by enough alcohol to kill her; the presumption was that Smith had added alcohol to the specimen to mask other drugs. As Sydney beckons, Smith remains banned, her medals forever tarnished by suspicion.

The I.O.C. says, That was then, this is now. Last month, in announcing new tests to be used in Sydney, I.O.C. president Juan Antonio Samaranch said, “The message is very clear. This is a new fight against doping.” But he admitted that some banned substances still weren’t being tested for, and when asked by a Financial Times reporter about the new, sophisticated enhancers and masking agents, he threw up his hands: “What can we do?”

What, indeed? The I.O.C. bans six classes of substances and three methods of performance enhancement. Regardless, the games in Sydney will be affected by illegal substances and methods, including:

–ANABOLIC STEROIDS These are strength builders (see chart, page 92). Short-acting, water-based steroids are now available that flush from the system in a matter of hours. The most popular are synthetic derivatives of testosterone, a hormone already present in the body. They are extremely difficult to detect. Testing for testosterone in Sydney will involve the maligned t/e (testosterone/epitestosterone) ratio. The usual ratio of these two hormones in a urine sample is about 1 to 1. Very few people have naturally elevated t/e ratios of 4 or 5, but the cut-off for the Sydney test is 6. By setting the number so high, the I.O.C. can’t really discourage athletes from boosting their testosterone to that level. “Athletes don’t stay ahead of testers, as people claim,” says Shorter. “The testers send a message about what’s the best stuff to take.”

–EPO, OR ERYTHROPOIETIN EPO regulates red-cell production, and these cells deliver oxygen throughout the body. Developed to alleviate anemia in patients with kidney disease, synthetic EPO is a diet staple for many long-distance runners, swimmers and cyclists. The oxygen boost it provides can improve an athlete’s performance in a 20-min. run by 30 sec.; in a marathon, by as much as 4 min.

Synthetic EPO is dangerous: an overdose could make the blood too thick for the heart to pump. The drug’s introduction in 1987 was followed by a series of mysterious heart attacks among Dutch cyclists. EPO is believed to have been the cause of no fewer than 25 deaths among Olympic-caliber cyclists in the past 23 years.

Epidemiologist Charles Yesalis of Penn State, an expert on performance enhancers, says new I.O.C. testing for EPO is “fluff,” that it won’t detect athletes who quit taking the drug a week or so before the Games.

–BLOOD DOPING In 1972 Dr. Bjorn Ekblom of Stockholm’s Institute of Gymnastics and Sports drew a quart of blood from each of four athletes, removed the red cells and put them in cold storage. He reinfused the cells a month later and found that his subjects’ increased oxygen-carrying capacity allowed them to run as much as 25% longer on a treadmill before reaching exhaustion. Blood doping was born. In 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team coach Eddie Borysewicz set up a back-alley clinic in a Los Angeles motel room. Four of the seven athletes who doped won medals. America hadn’t medaled in cycling since 1912. Doping worked.

It isn’t easy to nail blood dopers rich with their own blood, and doping, though illegal, will not be tested for in Sydney.

–HUMAN GROWTH HORMONE This and the related Insulin Growth Factor 1 will figure on the podium. Human growth hormone is a naturally occurring amino acid. It controls the release of IGF-1, which helps maintain growth rates from birth to adulthood. Genetically engineered hGH, available since 1985, was developed for people with growth-hormone deficiency, such as children with dwarfism.

Athletes use the drug for the same reasons they use steroids, and the combo of hGH (bigger muscles) and testosterone (stronger muscles) is especially appealing. The drug form of hGH sneers at those who would seek it out: after injection, it has a half-life of only 17 to 45 minutes, so it flushes from the system in short order while its effects linger. Although it is a banned substance, it will not be tested for in Sydney.

IGF-1 works by reducing protein breakdown and stimulating cell production. Studies in mice have shown that IGF-1 increased muscle strength up to 27%, and even at a cost of $3,000 a month, what athlete doesn’t want to be Mighty Mouse? There’s no test yet to detect IGF-1.

–BLOOD SUBSTITUTES They are the new wave. Blood substitutes, or artificial hemoglobins, were designed to obviate the need for transfusions in surgery and help patients in hemorrhagic shock. Hemopure, the brand name of one substitute, contains no red cells but consists of ultrapurified, modified bovine hemoglobin suspended in a salt solution. Now in clinical trials in the U.S. it was fast-tracked for approval in South Africa and found its way to the black market. Canadian track coach Dan Pfaff recently told the Toronto Sun that he believes many athletes formerly on EPO have switched to undetectable Hemopure.

A longtime observer of Olympic sport says, “Athletes are going to Hemopure, and they’re crazy. This new stuff–artificial bloods, tissue enhancers to increase oxygen profusion in the tissue–some of it can short out your system drastically. You OD on some of this stuff, you’re dead.”

It is, again, impossible to say how widespread the cheating will be in Sydney. When the question is asked of experts, answers range from Pollyannaish to doomful. U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, who will defend his Olympic title at 400 meters, insists he has “never taken the line thinking I was in anything but a clean race.” To which Frank Shorter answers, “Bullshit.” Craig Masback says he hopes his young daughter runs track because, with so much testing, she won’t do drugs. But Shorter says he first heard about human growth hormone in a Boulder, Colo., locker room in 1984, when he eavesdropped on a conversation between two 14-year-olds discussing a buy. Where’s the truth?

One attitude common to all is resentment. Johnson is resentful that, with so few positive tests among so many athletes, Olympic sport is being tarred, with consequences that will extend to TV ratings and sponsorships. Masback is resentful that in the summer of 1998 shot putter Randy Barnes made headlines for a positive steroid test even as baseball hero Mark McGwire made headlines for hitting home runs while taking a steroid, androstenedione, that Major League Baseball, in its don’t-ask-don’t-tell cynicism, sanctions.

Penn State’s Yesalis is resentful that the I.O.C. makes a big show of its “war on drugs” while keeping in place a system that is not unlike baseball’s in assuring that the stars–the moneymakers–continue to appear clean. Shorter is resentful that, even when this system stumbles upon a cheater, hypocrisy rules at the end of the day. He says “it absolutely stinks” that Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor will compete in Sydney. The world-record holder tested positive for cocaine at last summer’s Pan Am Games and was banned for two years by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. But in early August the federation, citing “exceptional circumstances” and a career with no previous violations, commuted the ban. Even federation senior vice president Arne Ljungqvist was appalled–“He should be suspended”–and threatened to resign. Cuban track officials, while applauding the reinstatement, were distressed that it wasn’t accompanied by an apology. What’s the Spanish for chutzpah?

And what’s the reason for hope, in a world where indefensible decisions are commonplace? “The reason is, things have to change, or we’re going under,” says Shorter. “The Olympics will be a freak show.”

Two recently created agencies, one of which is his own, may be able to effect change, Shorter says. The other is the World Anti-Doping Agency, and it is currently conducting 2,500 pre-Sydney, out-of-competition tests, the only kind with any reasonable chance of catching a cheat. “I truly hope our agencies act independently of the I.O.C., with its conflict of interest in keeping stars eligible,” says Shorter. “I want to get reciprocity, so any country that’s not tested up to our standards can’t compete here, and any sport that’s not tested up to a uniform standard is out of the Olympics. Being in the Olympics is a privilege, not a right. I want to get the athletes involved. The Australians are voting on maybe giving voluntary blood tests in Sydney to prove they’re clean. That’s a sign of willingness. I want that to spread.”

Shorter and Masback share the opinion that athletes will accept any playing field that is level.”If sport were clean, the athletes would happily compete on that new level, even without setting records,” claims Shorter. “I think we can make this look like a quirk of history. I think we can go from several generations who were predisposed to cheat to a new generation that says, ‘Cheating is not O.K.'”

Whether he’s right or dreaming, Olympic sport clearly needs a sea change in attitude. Without one, the future is scary indeed. According to Dr. Gary I. Wadler, professor of medicine at New York University and an expert on performance-enhancing drugs, “The question is whether we’re going to start genetically engineering superstars.” The answer is, sure, of course–if methodology exists and rewards are great. We’re doing everything we can to win now. Why wouldn’t we tomorrow? It isn’t cheating if everybody else is doing it.

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