Herculean task: ridding Games of drugs

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Frank Shorter, an American athletic icon by virtue of his 1972 Olympic marathon win - the last such triumph for the United States - insists he is going to wander about various venues here simply enjoying scintillating athletic performances.

He is not, he says, going to let anything deter him from the pure, unadulterated pleasure of observing excellence.

If true, this will require that Shorter suspend all judgments because, even in his sunny moments, he admits, "It's impossible to be a Pollyanna about the Olympics anymore."

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That's because Shorter's primary reason for being here is the escalating concern about drug use among the athletes. In April, he was named chairman of the new US Anti-Doping Agency with the stated goal of making the Olympics "free from illegal, performance-enhancing drugs."

Olympic performance seems never far from drug considerations. This time, there is much attention being directed toward a brand new test, developed largely by the Australians, to detect erythropoietin (EPO). It boosts the production of red blood cells, which increase the level of oxygen, which increases stamina and endurance. Runners and cyclists can be huge beneficiaries.

The blood test (heretofore, the International Olympic Committee [IOC] has only authorized urine tests) does seem worthwhile, but because so far it can catch only those who take EPO within 72 hours of the test, its usefulness is limited. One drug expert suggests that only "the silliest athlete in the world will get caught."

But the test is not without significance. John Boultbee, executive director of the Australian Institute of Sport, says, "EPO is the worst of the undetectable drugs that is prevalent in sporting society."

In July, EPO with a street value to athletes of "millions of dollars," according to one investigator, was stolen from an Australian hospital.

Inserted into the Olympic oath taken by the athletes at the Opening Ceremony was a phrase "committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport, and the honor of our teams." But words are one thing and actions are another. "I wonder," said one observer at the ceremony, "how many athletes felt comfortable with that?"

In the early going here, drug officials say there have been more than 2,000 athletes tested and about 20 produced "elevated" samples.

Already, a bevy of Chinese athletes left Sydney with mysterious ailments, believed by outsiders to be caused by the prospect of failing drug tests. The entire Romanian weightlifting team was banished. (After paying a fine, four of Romania's untainted weightlifters were allowed to remain, despite the "three strikes and you're out" per-team rule.) There have been two so-called "problematic" tests of athletes, according to IOC director general Franois Carrard.

Other Olympic athletes have been caught and prevented from competing, including a British boxer and a 400-meter running star, a Kazakhstan swimmer, and a Bulgarian triple-and long- jumper. Yesterday, former Olympic 5,000-meter champion Dieter Baumann was banned from the Games and given a two-year suspension. The German runner tested positive twice for nandrolone last year, but was cleared by his national federation.

But it has always been so. In 1904, Thomas Hicks of the US won the marathon after taking doses of strychnine along the way.

Shorter has testified to Congress: "Without major changes in the system that detects these drugs and imposes penalties, they will continue to be the price of advancement for every young athlete who aspires to emulate a sports hero and pursue his or her career to the highest possible level."

White House "drug czar" Barry McCaffrey showed up here to plug his crusade, and suggests that elite athletes feel "threatened" by performance-enhanced competitors.

The lofty hope, suggested by McCaffrey and others, is that this will be the last Olympics in which cheaters have the advantage.

But Shorter emphasizes that successful testing has to be "much more than trying to catch cheaters. The disincentive to cheat is preeminent." He readily admits the difficulty of his task: "It's natural to want the edge."

Shorter shares the exasperation of many observers when it comes to the coziness between Olympic athletes and drugs. Why, he wonders, is it taking so long to effectively face such a scourge?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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