Scandal Ignites Debate on Banned Substances
By Stephen Wilson
Saturday, August 1, 1998; 10:28 a.m. EDT
LONDON Not since Ben Johnson's positive test at the Seoul Olympics 10 years ago has the sports world been so embroiled in scandal over drugs.
A series of high-profile doping cases in the Tour de France, track and field and swimming have damaged the credibility of sports and ignited fresh debate on the scourge of performance-enhancing substances.
Provocative remarks on the subject by International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch have created further confusion. The IOC even admits it's still looking for a precise definition of doping.
With drug use apparently as rife as ever among athletes, and sports administrators unable or unwilling to combat the cheating, doping has returned to the top of the Olympic movement's agenda.
Critics accuse sports leaders of not doing enough to solve the problem, which has only become worse since Johnson was caught using steroids and stripped of his gold medal in the 100 meters at Seoul.
"More willpower and courage are necessary," senior IOC official Jacques Rogge said. "Too much carelessness, indifference and sometimes hypocrisy all reign again in the world of sport."
Five years ago, Olympic sports federations agreed to harmonize their drug rules and sanctions. But the accord never was fully implemented and has been virtually discarded.
Now, the IOC has scheduled a special meeting for Aug. 20 at Lausanne, Switzerland, concerning drug use in sports. The 11-member executive board also will discuss preparations for an international conference on drugs to be held in January at Lausanne.
Nowhere has the disgrace of doping been felt more dramatically than in the Tour de France, the world's most prestigious cycling event. This year's race, dubbed the "Tour de Farce," crawled to its conclusion in Paris Sunday after the most tumultuous times in its 95-year history.
The event was marred from day one after a masseur for the top-ranked Festina team was arrested driving a carload of banned substances. Festina was thrown out of the tour after officials and riders admitted to a systematic doping program, with cyclists contributing to a slush fund for their drugs.
Every day of the tour brought new raids, arrests, drug seizures, allegations, confessions and protests by riders complaining of police harassment.
By the time Thursday's stage was annulled after riders tore off their numbers, stopped twice and coasted at half-speed to the finish, at least six teams were under investigation for drug use.
The scandal only confirmed what insiders have known for years prohibited drugs abound in cycling.
"The Tour de France has not taught us anything new," said IOC medical commission chairman Prince Alexandre de Merode, the Olympics' top official in the anti-doping field. "It hasn't surprised me. It had to happen someday."
De Merode said team doctors who supply potentially dangerous drugs to cyclists are the real culprits.
"I thought medicine was for sick people to make them well, not for fit people to make them sick," he said.
The performance-enhancer of choice in cycling is EPO, or erythropoietin, a synthetic hormone which boosts endurance by stimulating the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. EPO can cause clotting, strokes and heart attacks and has been linked to several deaths in cycling.
There is no reliable test for EPO, which is believed to be widely used in other endurance sports, such as distance running and cross-country skiing. Another banned drug that can't be detected is human growth hormone, a popular alternative to steroids.
Also linked to steroids is testosterone, which has been at the center of several recent drug cases, including those involving two prominent U.S. track and field stars.
World track's governing body confirmed last Monday that sprinter Dennis Mitchell and shot putter Randy Barnes have been suspended for testing positive for testosterone-related substances.
It's the second drug offense for Barnes, the 1996 Olympic champion and world record-holder, and depending on the outcome of the case, he could be banned for life.
Barnes admitted taking androstenedione but said he didn't know it was banned. The product is an over-the-counter supplement that increases the body's ability to produce its own testosterone naturally.
Mitchell, the bronze medalist in the 100 meters at the 1992 Olympics, tested positive for high levels of testosterone.
Drugs have been particularly prominent in swimming, with four Chinese competitors receiving two-year bans July 24 after testing positive for a banned masking agent at the world championships in Australia early this year.
The biggest-profile case in swimming involves Ireland's Michelle Smith, who has been hounded by drug accusations since winning three gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Smith has been accused by the international swimming federation (FINA) of tampering with a urine sample she provided during an out-of-competition test. The sample allegedly contained a lethal concentration of alcohol, enough to spoil the test and cover up any traces of drugs.
Smith appeared at a FINA hearing last week and a verdict is expected any day. The maximum penalty is a life ban.
With headlines dominated by drug scandals, Samaranch caused an uproar with comments he made to a Spanish newspaper. He called for a drastic reduction in the list of banned substances and suggested that drugs that don't pose health risks shouldn't be banned.
Samaranch did not deny making the statements but said he was misinterpreted. He issued reassurances that IOC policy remains the same: all performance-enhancing drugs should be prohibited.
IOC officials said Samaranch wanted to highlight the confusion caused by minor medicinal products such as codeine, which was recently removed from the banned list.
"At the moment, there are large numbers of young athletes that are absolutely scared stiff to go into the chemist's shop (pharmacy) to get a prescription for a cold or headache because they might submit a positive drugs test," Australian IOC member Phil Coles said.
Rogge, an IOC executive board member and vice chairman of the medical commission, disputed Samaranch's view that many products could be removed from the banned list.
"All experts know that most if not all the drugs on the list are dangerous for the health and have to be forbidden," Rogge said. "Yes, we can modernize the list, but I think there can only be a minute change."
Rogge said the anti-doping effort requires government help in cracking down on networks that traffic in illicit drugs.
"The lesson from the Tour de France is the sports world cannot win the fight or reduce doping alone," he said. "We need more government involvement in tracking down the pushers and dealers."
But the sports world needs to overcome its own divisions on drugs after what track and field chief Primo Nebiolo calls "years of indecision and ineffectual actions."
"Some disciplines are bringing up their athletes with a credo that doping is a part of sport," he said.
As a result, the cat-and-mouse game will continue, with the cheaters a step ahead of the testers.
"The anti-doping fight has always been one of leaps and standstills," Rogge said. "Right now, we are lagging again because of EPO and human growth hormone. We'll find a testing method someday and we'll be abreast again. Then some new drug will come on the market. We will never win the war, but we have to do the maximum."
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press