A Wider Front in Doping Battle
Friday, March 2, 2007
The battle against the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs by athletes is increasingly being led by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies as part of an expanding cooperative effort with the U.S. Olympic Committee's primary anti-doping body, according to law enforcement and anti-doping officials.
The latest manifestation of this collaboration came this week in the multi-state crackdown on illegal online sales of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs that led to the arrests Tuesday of eight people in three states, the officials said.
In the run-up to the bust, Drug Enforcement Agency agents in Mobile, Ala., contacted federal investigators involved in the probe of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, or Balco, in Northern California that has implicated dozens of Olympic and professional athletes, including baseball slugger Barry Bonds. The California investigators put them in touch with officials from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, with whom they have been closely cooperating for the past four years.
Within days, the USADA sent a chemist to Mobile to offer his expertise. Several DEA agents flew to Colorado Springs, where the anti-doping agency is based. There were frequent phone conversations. The cooperation illustrated the changing landscape of anti-doping enforcement, investigators say.
USADA officials say the collaboration also reflects the failure of a more than three-decade effort to contain the use of performance-enhancing drugs by competitive athletes through testing. These officials say that with the Beijing Olympics less than 18 months away, they fear the use of even more sophisticated drugs and masking agents by athletes will continue to outpace testing methods.
The collaboration has "had an absolutely enormous effect," said Don Catlin, who has been involved in anti-doping efforts since the early 1980s as the director of UCLA's Olympic Analytical Laboratory, which services the USADA. "When I look at the 23 years of work before Balco and what we were able to do -- yeah, we would grind out positives and occasionally have a big hit -- but when the government decides to go after it and comes in with their tools . . . they [wiretap], they pull out e-mails. I was amazed.
"It has clearly caused a revolution. Sports authorities have no power to do anything and government has the power to do all. That's what it takes."
The crackdown on the online pharmacies this week suggests how the relationship already is benefiting both sides. While law enforcement agents have said they are targeting the pharmacies and not necessarily their customers, the California investigators urged DEA agents to turn over evidence of any involvement by high-profile athletes to the USADA so it could start disciplinary proceedings against them.
One lead agent in the multifaceted, four-state investigation said he would be willing. "Certainly," Carl Metzger, narcotics commander for Orlando's Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, said in an interview. "It would be reasonable to do that."
The pharmacies' customers are reported to have included Los Angeles Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, former baseball star Jose Canseco, a physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers and what one official called other "celebrities."
Federal officials say the cooperation has given them ready access to the scientific expertise of the anti-doping community as well as the benefit of USADA's proximity to athletes and coaches.
Matt Parrella, an assistant U.S. attorney working on the Balco case, said the USADA's ability to sanction drug cheats independent of a criminal conviction by banning them from competition helps "validate" federal investigators' work. Law enforcement authorities rarely go after users of performance-enhancing drugs, choosing instead to focus on distribution networks.