Rising clash over drugs in sports

Canada's loss of the gold highlights the gap between strict amateurs

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Baseball slugger Mark McGwire and hockey goalie Steve Vezina share more than the distinction of being world-class athletes.

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."

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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?"

One reason that pros use drugs so often, says Mr. Lechance, is the perception in professional sports that it's OK to do anything as long as you win, because that keeps the fans entertained. "In 'sport,' what you do doesn't make sense if it's not fair. In 'entertainment,' winning is one of the products you sell. How you win is a whole lot less important. That's why the Olympics, in particular, need to decide if they are about sport, the pursuit of human excellence, or entertainment and just putting on a good show."

For Lechance, Mark McGwire's use of androstenedione - an over-the-counter synthetic form of a male hormone - illustrates the problem. Androstenedione is banned by the National Football League and professional tennis but is allowed in Major League Baseball.

"A lot of people went, 'Well, so what if he uses andro. He's still a great hitter.' No one, particularly in the US, seemed to be asking if it was good for sport, and for what sport means to our society." he says.

McGwire, however, said last week that he stopped taking andro four months ago because he was concerned about children following his example and using the controversial supplement. But McGwire said, "I still believe there's nothing wrong with it.... If you're an adult, you elect to choose your own destiny."

Lechance says that if a professional athlete wants to compete in an Olympic-style sports event, he or she must abide by the principle of fairness and submit to the same sort of drug-testing regime that other athletes must undergo. Currently professional athletes are tested only during actual competitions - if at all - and are not subject to the random pre-competition testing that Olympic athletes face.

Gray areas

"I'm worried that we're moving to a world of grayness," says Jaci VanHeest, who spent five years as director of exercise physiology for the US swim team.

"There are many, many athletes who compete who never use drugs. But if you look at certain sports, like track and field, there was always a grayness there. And the introduction of professional athletes has pushed us even further in that direction."

While money is part of the problem, societal expectations also create pressure for sports bodies and countries to change the rules about who can compete.

"American society expects American athletes to always win," VanHeest says. "It's 'Winning is not something we want to do, it's something we must do.' And it's not just in the US that this is happening. Canada is coming around to be more and more like the US."

VanHeest says there is a pressing need to educate young people about activity first, and then sports, to restore the sense of "the joy of participating" that has been buried under an avalanche of "financial incentives" and nationalistic pressures.

"It used to be that sports was the place that we went to find our heroes. Now our heroes have become us. And that should scare us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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