Even drug researchers say there is no magical drug test on the horizon that will eliminate the use of performance-enhancing drugs from Olympic sports. They realize that, as tests for previously undetectable drugs are discovered, athletes will move on to more sophisticated means of cheating.
Still, drug experts and some athletes say, the development of better tests is critical to winning the anti-doping fight. Even more critical, many say, is the creation of an independent international anti-doping agency to oversee drug testing in sports, adding a much-needed measure of legitimacy.
Said Carl Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist who has long been outspoken on the subject of drugs in sports: "Where you begin and end with solving the problem is a completely independent agency with direct access to the media."
On the issue of testing itself, the drugs that pose a particular challenge are those that are found naturally in the body. Scientists still are unable to differentiate most natural substances from some exogenous drugs. One example is testosterone, which is both a naturally occurring steroid and also administered externally by athletes seeking to build strength.
Scientists say that to make major progress in the area of research, money is needed. Penn State University Professor Chuck Yesalis, an expert on performance-enhancing drugs, said anti-doping research has been vastly underfunded for years--which explains the almost remarkable lack of progress in developing reliable, modern drug tests. The International Olympic Committee, an organization with assets of more than $350 million for 1998, has pledged one-hundredth of that amount--$3.5 million--to drug research over the last three years. Yet that's far more than contributed by any other sport governing body.
Others say education and ethics policies, such as the one announced last week by health insurance giant Blue Cross/Blue Shield that aims to discourage drug taking among young Americans, are critical to the process of cleaning up Olympic sports.
A look at what is ahead in the area of drug testing:
A better testosterone test. Several scientists worldwide have worked on the carbon-isotope test, which is considered an improvement on the current testosterone test (the T/E Test) because it is believed to distinguish synthetic testosterone from natural testosterone. (The T/E test merely measures the amount of testosterone present in an athlete's urine--it cannot ascertain whether it is naturally occurring or not.) The carbon-isotope test is applied to urine samples. Scientists say it requires further testing.
A new test for erythropoietin (EPO). Several researchers are working on a test that will detect EPO, a drug that builds endurance, by identifying markers that appear when the drug is present. This requires testing the blood. A current blood test for EPO, which is used by the world cycling governing body, is considered legally untenable by the IOC because it doesn't actually detect EPO. Called the hematocrit test, it merely reveals the level of red cells in the blood. (A high level could--but does not necessarily--indicate the presence of EPO.)
A new test for human growth hormone (hGH). Human growth hormone is currently an undetectable drug that promotes overall growth and, it is believed, strength. A group of Australian scientists and London researcher Peter Sonksen have independently developed blood tests for hGH that they claim--much like the proposed test for EPO--identify substances that appear when hGH is present. Both groups say their tests look extremely promising but must be tested on a wide range of subjects worldwide for legal validity. The IOC recently canceled plans to send Sonksen and other scientists on an international trip to validate the prospective hGH and EPO tests, so they remain months or even years away from being ready for use.
More drug-free publicity campaigns. The Blue Cross/Blue Shield recently launched an anti-doping campaign that encourages American children to sign pledges and wear badges stating that they are drug-free. Some say a similar approach could work internationally. USA Track and Field attorney Jill Pilgrim and UCLA lab director Donald Catlin said anti-doping tactics that capitalize on peer pressure--perhaps through an honor system--could help decrease drug use. Catlin suggested that athletes be encouraged to join visible drug-free clubs that do voluntary drug-testing and publicize the results.
The new international anti-doping agency. The IOC and national governments have fought over the function and composition of this agency, which the IOC hopes to launch by January 2000.
According to IOC officials, the IOC's plan calls for a nonprofit agency governed by a board of directors consisting of governmental and international sport officials--including at least one IOC member. The IOC has pledged $25 million to fund the agency's first year. The agency would perform unannounced drug tests and contribute money to research but it would not interfere with the established systems of drug testing.
White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey charged in a detailed statement yesterday that the IOC's plan lacked transparency, accountability, proper representation, complete independence and maintained "the Byzantine elements of the current IOC." USA Track and Field CEO Craig Masback said the agency could not be effective and credible unless it were completely independent from all sport governing bodies and given absolute power over drug testing.