Drug-cheat athletes beware: You can lose your career, your trophies, and your reputation even if you don't fail an actual drug test.
That may be one vital lesson from the sad case of Olympian Marion Jones, say antidoping experts and officials.
New coalitions of law-enforcement and watchdog agencies are working to clean up sports, they say. They can draw on invoices, shipment records, and other evidence not related to testing regimens. Thus Jones's fall from grace may mark a new era in the fight to keep athletics free of performance-enhancing substances.
"[Jones] has been competing for many years and had delivered many samples, and none of them tested positive," says David Homan, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Montreal. "Now we have that extra armory of enforcement agencies, and that's probably the only reason that [she] confessed.
On Oct. 8, Jones handed back five Olympic medals won seven years ago in the Sydney Games. In addition, she agreed to forfeit all winning results dating back to Sept. 1, 2000.
The US Olympic Committee will return the medals to the International Olympic Committee, which will decide what to do with them. After long denying she had ever used performance enhancers, Jones admitted Friday that she'd taken the designer steroid "the clear" from September 2000 to July 2001. "The clear" has been linked to BALCO, the lab at the center of the steroids scandal in professional sports.
Her admission came as part of a guilty plea to lying to federal investigators about using steroids. She will be sentenced early in 2008 and could get up to six months in prison.
Jones is now one of the highest-profile figures to be snared by the government's long-running BALCO investigation. Home-run king Barry Bonds has been linked to the case, and a grand jury is still investigating whether he lied to federal investigators.
Bonds has denied ever knowingly taking steroids. He has testified that he believed a clear substance and cream given him by his trainer were flaxseed oil and an arthritis balm.
Jones has been dogged by rumors of steroid use for years. An ex-husband and an ex-boyfriend, both athletes, have been caught doping by sports authorities.
Yet Jones herself has not completely failed any drug test. In 2006, one test showed traces of the hormone-boosting substance EPO, but a backup "B" sample came up clear, allowing her at the time to claim vindication.
Her tearful admission of wrongdoing and apology to family and friends leave many questions unanswered. But her loss of medals and possible loss of earnings is a heavy blow, note antidoping officials. "[Her] punishment is in line with the rules but also with the offenses," says Travis Tygart, senior managing director and general counsel of the US Anti-Doping Agency.
And the fact that she was caught by law enforcement should be a warning, add sport officials. For the last two years, the World Anti-Doping Agency has been working with police and other government agencies to crack down on doping, notes the organization's director general.
Since WADA is a nongovernmental organization, countries cannot use its antidoping code to prosecute individuals involved in doping, explains Mr. Howman. But 67 countries have now ratified a UNESCO convention drawn up in 2005 that serves as a tool for governments seeking to curb doping in sport. Also, WADA is exploring cooperation with Interpol, which would allow police in any country with laws against trafficking in steroids to share information with each other.
Similar cooperation has led to the sanction of athletes based on evidence gathered outside urine and blood tests.
In Australia, for example, five athletes have been prosecuted for possession of human growth hormone (HGH) after being snared by a customs agency. With evidence collected by Italian police during a raid at the 2006 Turin Olympic Games, four Austrian cross-country skiers and two biathletes were issued lifetime bans early this year.
The cross-country skiers have appealed their cases. That incident marked the first time the International Olympic Committee had disqualified athletes for doping violations with positive tests.
Now, WADA is involved in Spain's Operation Puerto case, which uncovered an apparent blood-doping operation that was linked with Numerous cyclists, including German star Jan Ullrich.
No athletes have been prosecuted under Operation Puerto, and the cases are still under appeal.
The challenge in such cases, notes Howman, is that in many cases, "prosecutors are not really that interested in the end users [athletes]. They're more interested in traffickers and doctors."
Wire services were used in this report.