Doping Divide May Taint Olympics
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Backed by a spate of law-enforcement actions in recent years that have exposed drug use by dozens of top world athletes, leading anti-doping authorities are convinced that an investigation-oriented approach is more effective than drug tests in the campaign against performance-enhancing substances in sport.
But many of the 200 countries that will compete at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing lack the interest, resources or laws to participate in meaningful investigations of performance-enhancing drugs, raising concerns about a disparity in anti-doping policing from country to country and its possible effect on the integrity of major sporting events.
"No country is immune, and no sport is immune," Richard Ings, the chair and chief executive of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, said in a telephone interview. "If you don't have investigative capabilities, you must accept that there will be doping in your country."
Despite the body of evidence that suggests investigative efforts are a major deterrent to sports doping, there is a widening divide between the handful of countries, including the United States, at the forefront of the shift in tactics and those lagging behind. The World Anti-Doping Agency has praised countries that have strengthened anti-steroid laws and exposed drug distribution networks, but it is powerless to compel others to follow suit.
"This is of extreme importance," said Swedish chemist Arne Ljungqvist, a member of the anti-doping agency's executive committee. "Countries around the world are slowly -- or hopefully quickly -- understanding the need for domestic regulations to make these types of investigations possible. . . . But we cannot make the police investigate. We recognize that."
The case involving U.S. track star Marion Jones drove home the urgency of the problem, starkly revealing the inadequacy of testing -- which until recently was the anti-doping authorities' only weapon -- and the potential of law-enforcement work. Jones, once widely considered the world's finest female athlete, admitted in a federal plea deal last month that she used steroids before and after winning five medals at the 2000 Summer Games. Despite frequent drug tests, Jones never tested positive. Her use of performance-enhancing drugs was exposed by the federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, known as Balco, which has resulted in six criminal convictions.
Several dozen well-known cyclists, skiers, track athletes, and professional football and baseball players have been linked to drug investigations of varying scope since 1998 in the United States, Australia, Italy, Spain, France and other countries. Some of those athletes faced bans from their sports or criminal charges, and evidence gathered by investigators showed that many used banned performance-enhancing drugs even while subject to routine drug testing.
The problem of the gap between countries that police the distribution of steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing substances and those that don't might be more perception than reality, since there is no way of knowing whether the investigations have decreased drug use among elite athletes.
But in the matter of anti-doping, perception matters. Countries that haven't adopted a hard line on the issue and whose athletes perform exceptionally well at major competitions might find the results greeted with skepticism. And athletes from countries whose law-enforcement agencies have cracked down might wonder if rivals from less-vigilant nations will face the same barriers to drug use.
Such concerns are being voiced in the United States. Police actions in the United States in the last five years have resulted in sanctions or the threat of sanctions against more than a dozen athletes and helped restore the country's reputation on anti-doping matters.
"For so long, we were thought of as the biggest cheaters in the world," said Scott M. Burns, deputy director for state and local affairs at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Now people are saying, 'Are we too good at [the enforcement side]? What about the other countries? What are they doing?' "
The WADA finds itself trying to referee the shift. Because the agency, which is responsible for international anti-doping efforts, is operated and funded by governments and Olympic representatives, officials say it is well situated to prod countries that haven't toughened their laws or made it a priority to crack down on the trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs. WADA officials are expected to push governments for more action at a three-day World Conference on Doping in Sport that begins tomorrow in Madrid.