Last week's drug testing at the Pan American Games in Venezuela turned up a total of 12 athletes with traces of steroids in their postevent urinalyses, found two more with traces of stimulants, and sent up to a dozen United States track and field competitors scurrying home before their events even began.
The artificial, perhaps illusory, edge in sport has been around longer than anyone might care to admit, although increasingly advanced testing methods for drug use among athletes are designed to curb attempts to ingest an extra advantage.
Most of the Americans said they had not known precisely how stringent the testing would be and did not want to risk expulsion from next summer's Olympics if substances such as caffeine or antihistamines--among the drugs banned from use--were found in their systems.
Weightlifter Jeff Michels of Chicago, whose three gold medals were revoked, was said to have tested positively for testosterone, which can help increase bulk.
Saturday, the U.S. Olympic Committee disclosed that eight members of the U.S. weightlifting team tested positive for anabolic steroids in tests conducted, at their request, before the Pan Am Games. F. Don Miller, executive director of the USOC, said the tests were only for anabolic steroids and not testosterone.
Even the most hardened cynics who barely raise an eyebrow when the latest NFL-related cocaine bust is announced did a double take on this one. These kids won't even take the test?
Has winning deteriorated from a sweaty duel of muscle into a contest of medical and pharmaceutical know-how, of druggists versus detectives?
"If the testing being done in Caracas is as accurate as they say, it could be one of the greatest things for sport," said Dave Maggard, athletic director at the University of California.
Maggard, who has competed on and coached national track teams, said there has long been pressure on athletes to get involved with steroids "not knowing the long-term side effects but feeling they have no choice if they want to compete internationally."
Without considering what his arteries or liver will be like 20 years hence, the athlete dreaming of Olympic glory gambles on gaining an edge. "I don't mean just weight men, either," Maggard said. "You're talking everything except maybe checkers and chess.
"At the international level, being good just isn't good enough, and when they see what other athletes, particularly those in the Eastern European bloc countries are doing, a kid has to say, 'Well, how can I not take it?' If these tests can really detect steroids in the system going back as far as they claim, it would relieve that burden on the athlete and bring competition back to where it should be."
The director of the testing center in Caracas, Dr. Manfred Donike, a biochemist, has said the test equipment is capable of accurately detecting steroids taken about three months before testing, but that capability varies with the amount taken, time period and type of steroid used.
The equipment, which Donike said had also been used at the recent World Track and Field Championships in Helsinki, was brought in by the Pan Am Games medical commission to enforce the stricter "European" drug testing standards. With the harsher test procedures, use of banned drugs among the athletes fell to "nearly zero," according to Donike.
Even so, Maggard wondered if Eastern bloc countries will devise methods of circumventing the newer testing methods. "They are so far ahead of us in this," he said. "Their doctors know when to take the athlete off steroids so it won't be detected, and do periodic checks on the liver. They understand it so much better."
The U.S. doctors, he said, are far more conservative in dealing with steroids, and most do not fully understand the drug.
"The only group of people you'll find telling you steroids are of no use are medical people, which shows the ignorance of some of them," he said. "I'm not denigrating doctors, but we just do not regulate steroid use here the way other countries do."
Prescribed for therapeutic use, in doses of perhaps two to three milligrams a day, steroids are utilized to help tissue repair and muscle growth in arthritic patients or after surgery.
And in the National Football League, some medicinal use of steroids is permitted, when prescribed by a physican and monitored, according to league spokesman Dick Maxwell.
"Anabolic steroids used therapeutically will not make a world champion out of nothing," Maggard said. "It's the dosage, the long-term use. Someone who's been on it for five or six years is going to have a big advantage over some of these young kids."
"People talk more and more about what an Olympic gold medal is worth," said Bob Comstock, a Washington lawyer who ran the big CYO track meet at the University of Maryland for 13 years. "Many young people, who may not be that well educated to what (long-term) side effects they could face, will run risks to try and win. If a shoe company is waving a lot of money, they might be swayed by it, and will do whatever thay can for what they can get now."
Al Oerter, the four-time Olympic gold medalist in the discus, said he never took steroids until he was in the process of a comeback in 1976, and found the drugs to have no more effect than a placebo, providing no enhancement of performance.
Adrian Dixon, the track and field coach at Coolidge High School here, also thinks steroids are overrated. "My guess is that the American athletes look at the foreign ones who use them and (they) are far superior in some events. Then they look at the monetary compensation these same athletes receive. They think they need something to keep up. I don't see it coming to the high school level, though, or the average track and field athlete."
The list of drugs banned should be delineated, Maggard said. "If a kid has a cold, or needs something to help an allergy, they should be able to differentiate between those things and things such as amphetamines that can affect performance and may give a distinct advantage."
Maggard is hopeful the drug crackdown begun at the Pan Am Games will signal the end of chemical crutches for athletes.
"I feel for the athlete more than anyone else," he said. "Many of them don't want to use anything, but don't think they want to stand on the third step of that Olympic victory stand, or maybe not make the team at all, when they know what the guy on that first step has been doing all along to get there."