Catching drug cheaters to be an Olympian feat

Australia intensifies drug tests ahead of Sydney's Olympic Games, opening Friday.

"Faster, higher, stronger" is the Olympic motto.

As the Summer Games of the 27th Olympiad open Friday in Sydney, officials here are hoping that the athletes are not just faster and stronger, but will achieve their performances without drugs.

An Australian-led crackdown on the use of performance-enhancing drugs has already begun. Some observers see the policing effort as the most extensive ever rolled out at an Olympics.

But doubts continue about the seriousness of the International Olympic Committee's efforts and whether it really has a chance of catching those who choose to cheat?

Whatever Australian authorities or Olympic organizers do, "the Sydney Olympics will be just as drugged as any other," says Charles Yesalis, an expert on performance enhancing drugs at Pennsylvania State University. His skepticism is widely shared.

The upshot, he says, is that a tiny percentage of the athletes will be clean, a similar percentage will be caught, and an overwhelming majority will have used drugs and evaded detection altogether by the time the Olympics close. The fact is, Mr. Yesalis argues, that the drug cheats are now further ahead of those trying to catch them than they've ever been. And that comes with a daunting context: "There's a rich history of the users always being a step or two ahead of the testers."

There have been some minor victories in the fight against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the past week.

*A wrestling coach from Uzbekistan was caught bringing vials labeled "human growth hormone" into Australia and faces a possible fine if the substance turns out to be the banned hormone.

*China, which has long been considered one of the leading offenders when it comes to doping, dropped 27 athletes from its Olympic team, claiming some of them had returned "suspicious" blood tests.

*And a number of other athletes who have returned positive tests have been either suspended - while they appeal their case - or sent home altogether.

"For two years I've been saying 'if you're cheating, stay home,' " Australia's sports minister, Jackie Kelly, told reporters last week. "Don't come to Sydney ... because we'll catch you and we'll disgrace you, your family, and your nation."

On the face of it, Australia has mounted what looks like a severe crackdown on athletes who use drugs. Australian experts have been randomly testing athletes - some of them just minutes after they get off the plane - and customs officials have made an added effort to target drugs that might be used by athletes.

A Sydney radio station has introduced a trio of alternative mascots - Harry Hypodermic Needle, Gretel Growth Hormone, and Uri Urine - which it plans to use to humiliate anyone who tests positive for drugs.

The Australian effort follows moves by the IOC in the past year to step up its antidrugs rhetoric. The Olympics governing body has created the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is meant to serve as an umbrella group for the fight against the use of drugs in sport. In recent weeks, it has also introduced a test for the previously undetectable erythropoietin (EPO), a favorite among endurance athletes because it increases the blood's carrying capacity for oxygen.

To some observers it all adds up to signs of a positive change in the way the Olympic movement is handling the drugs issue, which it was forced to face up to most publicly after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the 100-meter final in Seoul in 1988.

Big holes in testing methods

"I think that these will be the breakthrough Games," Natalie Howson, the head of Australian Sports Drug Agency, told a Sydney newspaper. And IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch has predicted the Sydney Olympic Games will be "100 percent drug free."

But to critics both those statements seem preposterous. They argue there are still big holes in the net the IOC is casting to catch drug cheats

For one, the human growth hormone is still not tested. And even if the vials seized from the Uzbeki coach last week were meant for athletes under his tutelage, it's unlikely they will be punished. Chances are they will still compete in Sydney. Meanwhile, Uzbeki team officials said yesterday the coach used the hormone - normally used to build muscle - to treat a skin disorder.

There are also no tests in place for other performance enhancers like insulin growth factor 1, which helps improve strength and muscle mass. And some athletes are suspected of using testosterone creams that can have similar effects to anabolic steroids but can be almost impossible to detect, if used carefully. "No one injects themselves anymore. They just rub on some cream," Yesalis says.

The new test for EPO also has its flaws. It is actually two tests - a blood test and a urine test. To be sanctioned, athletes have to test positive on both tests.

But the IOC has admitted the urine test only detects EPO taken within 72 hours, something experts say is unlikely given the fact the peak effect of taking EPO occurs four to six weeks after it is taken. "You'd have to be the silliest athlete in the world to get caught on those tests," says an Australian doctor.

The skepticism extends further to the IOC's new antidoping agency, WADA. The agency has been criticized by many people - including US drug czar Barry McCaffrey - for not being independent enough from the IOC.

Conflict of interests

At the top of the list of criticisms is the fact that WADA is headed by Dick Pound, a senior member of the IOC and also in charge of negotiating marketing agreements with sponsors. Critics say Mr. Pound's dual role represents a blatant conflict of interest. Every positive drug test recorded could ostensibly damage the Olympic brand for which sponsors pay so much to be associated with.

And although some publicly welcomed China's decision to cut suspected drug cheats from its team, the widespread belief is that Beijing's action came only because it is in the midst of a huge campaign to win the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"They're willing to take a whipping for the sole purpose of securing the 2008 Games," says Yesalis. "In a totalitarian society you can pull that off."

With all the brouhaha over tests and other control mechanisms, it's hard to forget just why athletes risk the potentially deadly side effects of drugs to gain an advantage.

A study released by the White House last week estimated that about 30 percent of Olympic athletes - up to 90 percent in some sports - used illicit drugs.

The reason, the study concluded, was simple: "Winning and record-breaking equals big bucks."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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