Drug abuse in college sports

Only a year ago he was a key player on a football team that was enjoying a successful season. His happiest memory is of catching a pass for the winning touchdown in the final moments of a close game.

But, while he enjoyed playing football, he was troubled by a darker side of the sport. ''Five or six'' of his fellow players, he says, were taking amphetamines before games. Amphetamines, often called ''speed'' because of their stimulative effect on the nervous system, are not legally obtainable in the United States without a doctor's prescription.

''They thought they needed it,'' this former player continues. ''But then they had to take something else that night to come back down. I really didn't like that. I always thought you could get just as ready (for a game) by working hard in practice.''

What makes this athlete's story unusual is that it didn't happen in the National Football League (NFL), where drug use among some players has been documented. Instead, it happened at a small, church-affiliated college in the Eastern US - a small enough school, in fact, that it couldn't hope to go to one of the New Year's Day bowl games even if it finished the season undefeated.

Such evidence that drug use has trickled down from the play-for-pay ranks to the campus level is a source of growing concern to those who govern and follow intercollegiate sports. Their concern is heightened by the approach of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Many of the members of the US team will come from the college ranks - particularly basketball and baseball players, wrestlers, gymnasts, swimmers, and members of the track and field squads.

Last summer one member of the US team at the Pan American Games in Caracas, a weightlifter, was stripped of his medals because a test showed he had been using anabolic steroids, another type of ''performance enhancing'' drugs. A dozen other members of the US team left for home without participating in their events , inviting speculation that they were afraid they also might fail the same test.

Steroids, like amphetamines, are used medically. But athletes take them for other reasons - in the belief that they help build muscle mass and strength to provide a physical edge over opponents. Steroids aren't legally obtainable in the United States without a prescription. But they are readily available in other countries and are sometimes brought back in great quantities by athletes who compete abroad.

Medical experts warn that athletes who take anabolic steroids run the risk of temporary and even permanent physical complications, as well as increased irritability and a heightened tendency to engage in fights.

Yet, according to one member of the US track team at the Pan American Games, ''Everybody uses them - sprinters, pole vaulters, weight men, and distance men.''

Tests for drug use are common at international competitions like the Pan American Games. But for years they were given randomly, and in some cases there were serious questions about the reliability of the analyses. Meanwhile, athletes learned how to disguise or substitute their test samples. As a result, many believed their chances of being caught were relatively small. At the least, they considered themselves safe if they stopped taking the drugs as late as two weeks before competing.

Now, however, the testing has become broader and more sophisticated. Medical experts say such equipment as gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers can detect traces of drugs taken years before.

International Olympic Committee prohibitions on drug use even cover components found in some popular over-the-counter remedies. So, to avoid repeating at the Olympics what happened at the Pan American Games, all candidates for the US team must take rigid tests for drug use at their respective tryouts. The US Olympic Committee will disqualify anyone who fails the test twice.

Concern over drug use also was intensified last month at the annual convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) here. Delegates overwhelmingly adopted a resolution that called for development of ''an ongoing program of drug testing.''

The NCAA, with 788 member schools, is the largest and most powerful governing body in college sports. When in full operation, the testing program will include sanctions against collegiate athletes who are found to have used illegal drugs. A list of controlled and performance-related drugs is to be distributed to all NCAA member schools by July 1.

The NCAA has also set aside $25,000, its largest grant ever, to sponsor a year-long study by two Michigan State University medical researchers to determine if there are drug problems among collegiate athletes.

Douglas McKeag, an associate professor of medicine at the school and one of the project researchers, says testing of both men and women athletes will begin this month on a random, voluntary, and anonymous basis. The goal: 2,700 participants from the NCAA's four geographical regions.

''It is not our intent to act as policemen,'' Dr. McKeag says. ''We're trying to determine whether or not there is a problem, not where there is a problem.''

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