Trial puts spotlight on steroids

Some analysts say drug- testing programs in pro sports fall short and call for radical new measures.

Next up? Barry Bonds. But the San Francisco slugger won't be stepping up to the plate next Thursday.

Rather, he will be the next top athlete to appear in a San Francisco courtroom. The topic: A Bay Area company accused of producing steroids.

As the circle of athletes called to testify widens - Olympians, Major League Baseball stars, NFL players have all been called before the federal grand jury - suspicion mounts that use of performance-enhancing drugs is common among athletes in high-stakes sports. Just as troubling, many sports observers say, is the apparent inability of leagues and governing bodies to take effective action to curb the trend.

"How can anyone, in good conscience, say they're doing enough? They're not," says Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee member and chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Though his words are directed at Major League Baseball, Mr. Pound is quick to assert that drug problems pervade all sports. "The feeling now is this is the way you approach all sports," he says. "You cheat."

Players' unions, the leagues, and other sports organizations counter that it's their job to ferret out cheating athletes - and that they are doing so. But others who monitor drugs in sports are beginning to offer more radical ideas for ridding sports of steroids, andro, ephedra, ephedrine, and the previously "invisible" performance-enhancing drug, THG.

One potential solution - governmental oversight - seems unlikely. The Food and Drug Administration declared THG illegal last month. Sens. Joseph Biden and Orrin Hatch have been voluble critics of performance-enhancement drugs. The senators recently proposed legislation banning andro and THG and enacting stiffer penalties for possessing them. They have not, however, called for federal oversight at the expense of pro leagues.

"It is time we started being honest and calling andro and other steroid precursors what they really are: drugs," Senator Biden said upon introducing the bill last month. "... They should be controlled in the same manner as other anabolic steroids."

But the leagues and their players unions see no need for governmental oversight. Experts, such as Don Catlin, a UCLA molecular pharmacologist who led the discovery of THG last summer, are ambivalent. Federal oversight brings benefits as well as limitations, experts say.

Dr. Catlin believes the doping scandals could be solved within five years, if the leagues and sports- governing bodies around the world work together to create more expansive and accurate testing.

"It can be done," he says, "but there is a cost. And I don't know if anyone will want to pay for the research and grants necessary. This should be a wake-up call for sports."

He ticks off a list of concerns: designer drugs, growth hormones, and more. The issue grows even murkier when leagues disagree on penalties, testing methods, and which substances are verboten.

The subpoena of Bonds, who has not been charged in the investigation of dietary-supplement manufacturer, BALCO, nonetheless underscores the more difficult terrain pro athletes tread.

Several weeks after the 2003 World Series, Major League Baseball announced 5 percent to 7 percent of 1,438 player steroid tests were positive, triggering a more thorough screening program beginning next season. Even so, the new program's lax rules - players face no consequences for their first positive test, for example - have been excoriated.

Baseball's steroid problems persisted in recent seasons because of protracted labor negotiations with the players' union, says Rich Levin, a Major League Baseball spokesman.

"It's obviously been a problem over the past couple of years, which is why the commissioner [Bud Selig] fought so hard to include testing," he says. "We have to negotiate this. It's something the union resisted for years."

The current program was included in the 2002 agreement between MLB and its players. The pact expires in 2006. Attempts to reach a players union spokesman were unsuccessful.

Pound scoffs at the explanations. "They've set it up to fail by making it a collective-bargaining issue," he says.

Pound adds that when he sees Bonds and other brawny sluggers, it raises questions. "The first thought isn't, 'My, he must eat a lot of oatmeal.' "

For Pound,the prospect of mounting public concern spurs optimism. He cites a recent European opinion poll, with 74 percent of fans there blaming performance drugs for sports' biggest problems.

"I sense more disgust from the public," Pound says. "The public is insulted. These explanations [for performance-enhancing drugs], they make you say, 'How can you be serious?' "

At UCLA, Catlin, whose clients include the NFL and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, finds it hard to gauge public perception. "They still buy tickets and go to games," he says. "Does that mean they don't care? I'm not sure what the feeling is."

Pound says drug problems pervade all sports - that athletes across all fields, and courts, are aware of performance aids. When Pound wrote to the major American sports commissioners last year, few acknowledged the World Anti-Doping Agency or its mission, he says. Those who did told Pound they already had prevention and detection programs in place.

"Part of any drug program is monitoring what surrounds you and what else is going on," says Tim Frank, a spokesman at the National Basketball Association. "[Steroids] have not been a major issue for us. We haven't banned THG yet. That doesn't mean we won't."

The NBA has banned steroids, and players are tested for them. Frank says other performance-enhancement products - andro, ephedra, and ephedrine - are prohibited, as well.

Many experts say the concerns over known substances are only part of the story. If THG went undetected by tests for an unknown time period, they say, what else might be on the black market, making athletes bigger, stronger, and faster while imperiling their health and cheating their competitors?

Assessing such damage is guesswork, at best, Catlin says. The only hope for stamping out drug use in competition is an intense private-public compact. The current investigation into BALCO may be a hopeful first step.

"The fact that our federal government is involved in this investigation is, I think, marvelous," Catlin says. "We need that kind of help. Congress is finally discussing getting rid of supplements, too. I'll believe when I see it, but they can help us."

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