Crackdown on sports drug usage means tight controls at Olympics
When an athlete wins an Olympic event this summer in Los Angeles, he or she shouldn't expect a pat on the back and hordes of congratulations - at least not right away.
They will come later, after the top finishers have been hustled off to closely guarded rooms for in-depth drug testing. These rooms will be filled with high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment capable of tracing illegal drugs used as much as six months earlier.
For years, Olympic officials have tried to weed out drug users. Now, armed with today's sensitive detection devices, they can mount the most formidable crackdown yet.
Athletes were given a jolting preview of what to expect at last summer's Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, where more than a dozen athletes were disqualified for drug-related reasons.
One of these, American weightlifter Jeff Michels, failed a urinalysis test and was stripped of the three gold medals he won in his weight class. Along with the medals, Michels lost the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, where he probably would have been the best US lifter at Los Angeles.
Since the Pan Am Games, much has been said about the use of drugs in amateur sport and international competition. William E. Simon, president of the United States Olympic Committee, has called drug usage ''a problem that is going to destroy the international Olympic movement if we allow it to continue. It's an evil and we are going to stamp it out. The athletes are going to find out that the game is over.''
The drugs that seem to be raising the most concern are anabolic steroids. The Soviet Union synthesized them in the late 1950s, when the hormone allegedly was used to produce masculine development in women athletes.
Steroids are said to increase muscle size and strength, but the end result of this increase is not known. Some experts question whether the drug actually enhances athletic performance.
There is ''no concrete evidence'' that it does, says Dr. Lawrence Kerr, Chairman of the US Olympic Drug Committee. He also adds that the public shouldn't think this is a new problem.
''The use of drugs has been a problem since the late sixties, when it was discovered that members of the Eastern Bloc countries were utilizing steroids to enhance their performance,'' explained Dr. Kerr. ''That's the argument: Does drug usage enhance the performance, or is it a placebo effect?''
There is insubstantial evidence for answering this question, but more than enough evidence about the internal dangers of steroid use.
In the US a task force, including Dr. Kerr, has been set up to visit Olympic training sites for the purpose of educating the athletes, coaches, and trainers. Commenting on the tests he helps administer, Dr. Kerr says, ''This is not the way it ought to be. It kind of upsets me, but we have to do it.''
''I don't know of guys who enjoy taking pills or needles,'' said John McArdle , an American hammer thrower who left Caracas and the Pan Am Games before the drug fiasco erupted. ''But they all want the advantage.''
McArdle refused to comment on his reasons for leaving the Pan Am Games, but did say more athletes competing at the international level are taking or have taken steroids than most of the public thinks. ''It's a very significant number'' he said, ''not just in track and field, but in other sports, too.''
There is a glum feeling in the sports world that the win-at-all-costs attitude of athletes, coaches, trainers, and even parents has escalated. The bottom line is simply: Athletes don't like to lose.
Not everyone, of course, shares the anti-drug sentiments. One person who doesn't is Jim Santos, a former track coach at California State-Hayward and assistant coach of the US men's track and field team.
''I'm not against the use of steroids as long they're available to everyone and an extreme amount of knowledge is being given out and people know what they're getting into'' said Santos in an interview after last year's Pan Am incident. ''I know athletes who have used steroids. I haven't seen anything bad happen to them.''
Still, Santos hints that he is not convinced they really benefit an athlete. ''If you don't work hard (at your sport), steroids aren't worth a hoot.''
But for some people, Dr. Kerr believes, there can be fatal side effects from using drugs. With a touch of desperation in his voice, he asks, ''Why do these things? Is the cause of winning so great that our young people are willing to sacrifice their entire life to win? I just don't understand it. . . .''