Having spent much of their youth preparing for the 1980 summer Olympics, many athletes forced to boycott the Moscow games are wondering what international sport is all about.

That question, however, is one the International Olympic Committee poses to the athletes as it tries to stamp out a forbidden practice: use of drugs to bolster athletic performance.

Drugs, says Lord Killanin, head of the International Olympic Committee, are the greatest threat to the Olympics.

The path of athletes aiming for the gold medal may be one marred by the use of anabolic steriods, blood doping, amphetamines, and other chemicals some Olympic competitors consider essential.

Drug use by athletes is a smoking volcano that could erupt again and again. In 1976, seven athletes were disqualified, three of them losing medals for having taken anabolic steriods.

Even back in the 1952 Olympics, syringes and broken ampules were found in the locker rooms of speed skaters. In 1968 the IOC began to inspect athletes for drug use and by 1976 had more than 30 on its forbidden list.

The buildup to drugs began when Germans introduced weight training in the 1930s. Vitamins become popular in the '40s. By the 1960s, a host of drugs were being used -- and detected by officials.

"Competition in sport must not be allowed to become competition between pharmacologists and physicians using competitors as guinea pigs," an IOC commission stated in a booklet in 1976. Artificial means of achieving better endurance, sharpened reflexes, and added muscle weight are more and more easily detected, but at a high cost -- not all athletes can be tested.

The most obvious offenders are shot-putters, hammer throwers, and weight lifters. Ilona Slupianek, a blond female shot-putter from East Germany, was caught using muscle-building steroids in 1977.

Must the athletes be pushed beyond human limits?

East Germany, a nation of only 17 million, is an athletic power second only to the Soviet Union in the gold medal count. State-supported programs, known as sports factories in the West, pump out finely honed athletes.

Now that detection has become easier for medical authorities, athletes are turning to the less-detectable practice of "blood doping" -- withdrawing a pint of the athlete's blood a week or two before an event, and returning it to the body for an added supply of red blood cells.

Athletes are caught in a bind: Some feel they may not succeed unless they use drugs. The East Germans and a few other East Europeans have refined the use of steriods to just below detection levels, US officials say. East German swimmers are also reported to be adding air to their bodies to increase buoyancy. "Its just a matter of who gets caught," said a US coach.

Derek Johnson, British secretary of the International Athletes Club, proposes that Western nations dissociate themselves from games with Eastern nations, which he says, are "up to their eyeballs" in drugs for athletes. If winning is all then you get a Machiavellian approach, says John Cheffers, sports psychologist at Boston University. "It destroys kids -- they are forced to take shortcuts."

He paraphrases a Coubertin axiom: "It's not participation that counts, but who your druggist is."

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