Rising clash over drugs in sports
Canada's loss of the gold highlights the gap between strict amateurs
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
Baseball slugger Mark McGwire and hockey goalie Steve Vezina share more than the distinction of being world-class athletes.Skip to next paragraph
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As professionals, they both openly use performance enhancing drugs. But when Mr. Vezina switched his ice skates for a pair of inlines to compete in the just concluded Pan American Games, his play was governed by different rules. And he cost the Canadians a gold medal.
Yet he sounds unrepentant. "I'm a professional athlete and an ice hockey player first, and you're allowed to take these substances" Vezina said. "Mark McGwire is the best hitter in the National League, but he was proud to say he was taking andro [androstenedione], and he was a hero. I take a little bit to help me get ready for ice hockey and it seems it would be less bad if I robbed a bank."
Vezina's attitude underscores an emerging conflict between the drug standards used in Olympic-style events and the more lax
standard in professional sports. And as "amateur" sports become more closely equated with professional entertainment, experts warn pressure may be building to allow the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
"Professional athletes, in the traditional sense, have a very different ethic toward drugs than does the traditional Olympic athlete," says Jill Pilgrim, legal counsel for the United States Track and Field Association. "Olympic athletes who compete on a high level know that they are being beaten by people taking drugs."
Vezina, who admits taking the drug nandrolone (a prescription-only anabolic steroid used to gain weight and muscle mass quickly), was not the only competitor caught at the Pan American Games. Eight other athletes - including four gold medal winners - failed doping tests.
About one-third of the 2,500 Pan Am Games competitors were tested for drugs. Eduardo de Rose, head of the Pan American medical commission, said no games ever tested so many athletes. He called the number of athletes testing positive for drug use "below average the number we've had at any international games."
But the issue continues to come up. On Monday, two Chinese, a Spanish, and a Slovenian swimmer were banned from the sport for several years after testing positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs. Last week, British track star Linford Christie tested positive for nandolone, and US sprinter Dennis Mitchell was suspended for two years for recording a positive doping test in 1998.
Sport as entertainment product
Victor Lechance, president of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport - a nonprofit organization that promotes drug-free sports, equity, fair play, safety, and nonviolence - says that one of the factors driving the erosion of the drug-free standard of sports is that the "pursuit of human excellence" is being turned into a consumer entertainment product.
"The separation of 'amateur' and pro doesn't make as much sense today as it did in the past, when many 'amateur' athletes now need to train year-round. The distinction here has to be the nature of the business: Is it really about sport or is it about entertainment?"