Surrounded by the angular black steel and shining chrome frames of weightlifting equipment, a man reputed to be one of Toronto’s more successful dealers in anabolic steroids unashamedly describes their effect on women. “You take a good-looking woman and she goes on ’roids,” he tells a male reporter, “she comes back in a few weeks and she’s got a heavier beard than yours and a deeper voice.” Clearly, the masculinizing effects of steroids on women are chilling. Even more severe, for both men and women, are the hazards of long-term use of the synthetic male hormones: they include kidney failure and fatal cancers. Despite those known risks, some athletes continue to find the performance-enhancing drugs irresistible. Earlier this month, Canada’s secondranked sprinter, Cheryl Thibedeau, received a lifetime suspension— which she has appealed—after tests in June showed that she had used two anabolic steroids, stanozolol and nandrolone.
Four years after Ben Johnson fled in disgrace from Seoul after a positive drug test, two years after the release of the $4-million Dubin inquiry report into athletes’ use of banned drugs and nearly a year after
Canada announced a wide-ranging program to deter drug use, the issue continues to cast a shadow over the Olympic ideal of fair play. “You can’t stop it,” is the fatalistic conclusion reached by Cecil Smith, the publisher of Athletics, a Canadian track-and-field magazine. “It would be absolutely naive to think you could.”
Several countries, including Canada, have tried, dramatically increasing the number of unannounced drug tests to which elite athletes are subject. But other nations have been slower to respond: the United States, for one, has moved only tentatively towards rigorous drug testing of its Olympic athletes. Meanwhile, competitors have turned to new generations of performance-enhancing compounds that cannot be detected by existing tests. The regrettable result, acknowledges Dr. Andrew Pipe, the Ottawa-based chief medical officer of the Canadian Olympic team, is that for the athletes assembling this week in Barcelona, “the level playing field is far away.”
Still, Canada is among the countries that have taken the biggest strides towards levelling the field. In September, 1991, federal Sports Minister Pierre Cadieux stiffened the penalties for athletes caught using
banned drugs and announced the creation of a new federal agency designed to take testing out of the hands of individual sports organizations. Since January, the newly established Canadian Centre for Drug-Free Sport, based in Gloucester, Ont., outside Ottawa, has assumed responsibility for administering tests to Canadian athletes of every discipline.
With an annual budget of $3.1 million and a full-time staff of 13, the centre has adopted a three-pronged strategy against the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Most visibly, it has accredited 400 volunteer control officers to oversee the collection of urine samples from competitors at all national amateur sports championships. More significant, however, are the surprise tests that the centre conducts on athletes in training, often with less than two days’ notice. Declared the centre’s director, Victor Lachance: “If you are on a steroid cycle, and you get 36 hours’ notice, there is nothing you can do [to evade detection].” However, plans to investigate allegations that individual athletes or their coaches are involved in the use of performance-enhancing drugs have proven difficult to translate into action. “One path takes you down the road to a mini-Canadian Security Intelligence Service,” acknowledges Lachance. “We don’t want to do that.”
Some other countries—among them Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and France—have adopted comparable measures. That has led to increasing international cooperation to control drugs: in December, 1990, Canada joined Britain and Australia in signing an agreement permitting each nation to test the others’ athletes during training or at competitions within their borders. The year before, a similar, although informal, agreement between Athletics Canada and its Swiss counterpart led to a positive test for Canadian hurdler Julie Rocheleau while she was training in Switzerland. The collapse of East Germany in 1990, meanwhile, brought an end to that country’s officially sponsored program of sophisticated drug use (page 51).
But the international campaign against banned drugs— doping control, in Olympic parlance—has been far from universally effective. Although the International Olympic Committee unveiled a model anti-doping program in late 1988, it offered no money to help enforce the recommended sanctions. Meanwhile, a handful of countries remain under suspicion of actively condoning drug use by their athletes. Noting the rapid advance of China’s swimmers, Swimming Canada’s director of international competitions, Trevor Tiffany, observed last year: “China’s improvement is sudden and phenomenal, and when their coach was asked why, he answered that they were using the East German training method. Take that as you wish.”
Canadian sports officials are critical of their American counterparts, as well. There is no U.S. equivalent to the Canadian Centre for Drug-Free Sport. Instead, the U.S.
Olympic Committee (usoc) routinely tests all American athletes before they leave for the Olympics—an approach that critics contend offers no deterrent for those who use performance-enhancing drugs during training. “You only look at a team before it leaves to make sure it doesn’t get caught,” alleges Canada’s Lachance. Adds Pipe: “It is controlled doping, not doping control.”
In fact, both the usoc and the U.S. Athletics Congress, which controls track and field, have taken some recent steps to broaden the reach of their anti-doping programs. Since extending its short-notice testing program to cover the 15 top-ranked American athletes in each track event in May, 1991, the Athletics Congress has conducted about 700 drug tests on athletes in training, roughly the same number it has conducted at major competitions. Earlier this year, the USOC launched a pilot program in co-operation with eight U.S. sports associations to conduct random out-of-competition tests on American rowers, cyclists, weight lifters and swimmers, among others athletes. “We are achieving some deterrence,” says USOC doping-control officer Dr. Wade Exum. Even so, despite the United States’ larger population, the usoc and the Athletics Congress together spend only slightly more than $2.4 million
to police drug use—about two-thirds of what Canada spends.
Even in Canada, the much vaunted national anti-drug strategy has not deterred everyone. In addition to Thibedeau, another 24 Canadian athletes have failed drug tests since April, 1989—11 in the past year. Former national junior 100-m champion Brian Morrison of Calgary was banned from competition for two years after testing positive for steroids in June, 1990. “I can’t point the finger at anyone,” Morrison said. “I went looking for it and I found it and I did it to myself.”
Elsewhere, tests have exposed some of the world’s top-ranked competitors as drug users. In the United States, the list of suspended athletes includes the world-record holder and 1988 Olympic silver medallist in the 400 m, Butch Reynolds; 1988 Olympic bronze-medal long jumper Larry Myricks and world shot put record holder Randy Barnes. In May, world bronze-medal shot-putter Lars Nilsen became the third Norwegian in that sport to test positive for steroids in the past 10 months.
The reason for the popularity of steroids is simple: they work. The synthetic hormones allow athletes of both sexes to train harder, recover more quickly from injury and build up larger, stronger muscles. At the end of his inquiry, former Ontario chief justice Charles Dubin concluded: “The overwhelming evidence is that anabolic steroids enhance athletic performance.” The drugs are also widely available and often comparatively cheap. Individual injectable doses, some obtainable through the mail, can cost as little as $20. And even though penalties for trafficking in steroids have increased in both Canada and the United States since 1990, athletes say that they have little trouble acquiring them through contacts made in gyms or from mail-order suppliers. One U.S. study earlier this year uncovered mail-order forms for steroids, and gave addresses in Toronto and New Brunswick.
But the physièal price of steroid use can be high. Males risk acne, balding, shrunken testicles and the development of female-type breasts (one of the symptoms that Johnson showed), as well as sudden and violent so-called ’roid rages. Women, in addition to developing male characteristics, including the irreversible enlargement of the clitoris, risk baldness, depression and disrupted menstrual cycles. Few studies have examined the long-term effects of the drugs, but experts and former users alike assert that those risks include various forms of cancer. Former National Football League star Lyle Alzado blamed the steroids that he took almost daily for nearly 20 years for causing the brain cancer that ultimately killed him. Before his death earlier this year, Alzado wrote: “If you’re on steroids, stop. I should have.”
But for athletes determined to find better performance in a bottle, there are alternatives to steroids. Most are expensive and none are free of risk, but several possess a quality precious to cheaters: they cannot be detected, even by sophisticated, IOC-approved testing labs. One option is human growth hormone. The substance, which has many of the same body-building effects as anabolic steroids, is legally extracted from cadavers or produced by bioengineering. Human growth hormone costs more than $4,000 for a treatment cycle lasting several weeks, but cannot be distinguished from an athlete’s own natural hormones. Another alternative is erythropoietin, a drug developed to stimulate the production of red blood cells in patients suffering from kidney failure; some athletes believe that the drug, which is undetectable, can help boost endurance, but it can also thicken the blood and raise the risk of strokes (it is a suspected contributor to the deaths of at least 18 young European cyclists over the past five years). A third variant is gammahydroxybutyrate, a compound that stimulates the release of an athlete's own growth hormones—purportedly enhancing muscle development. But it can also leave those who abuse it in a coma.
For a small minority of athletes, even those risks pale beside the glitter of Olympic gold—and the wealth and fame that may follow. And even though the vast majority of athletes competing in Barcelona will almost certainly do so without the aid of drugs, few observers expect the Games to be more than marginally cleaner than the ones that concluded four years ago in Seoul. “We cannot test everybody, everywhere, every time,” concedes Pipe. Adds Athletics publisher Smith: “New drugs will go undetected. Those who don’t have the sophistication will get caught.” In the end, at least a handful of cheaters, it seems, will indeed prosper.
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