The expanding pharmacopoeia of performance-enhancing drugs represents an insidious challenge

CHRIS WOOD February 2 1988


The expanding pharmacopoeia of performance-enhancing drugs represents an insidious challenge

CHRIS WOOD February 2 1988



The expanding pharmacopoeia of performance-enhancing drugs represents an insidious challenge

A medal-winning Olympic performance is the vindication of years of discipline, devotion and frequent pain. But for champions at the 1988 Winter Games, the competition will not end when they watch their time flash on a board or cross the finish line. For this year’s athletes, that triumph will be followed by a final test when they step into a guarded washroom and, under the eyes of an official, produce a sample of their urine. Within hours the computerized analysis equipment at the Olympic drug-testing laboratory at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital will render its verdict. If the urine contains residue of any of more than 400 drugs and related compounds banned by the International Olympic Committee (ioc), the medal will be withdrawn and a career will be ruined.

The $h9-million laboratory is the sharp end of a determined assault on the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in Olympic sport. Last year the ioc approved a sweeping overhaul of sanctions against drug use. As a result, entire sports teams can be banned if a single member is proven to have used a performance-enhancing drug. In part, the new hard line was provoked by medical evidence proving that steroids, the most popular banned compound, could be lifethreatening. The campaign picked up momentum with a spate of drug-related disqualifications. In July, 1986, prior to the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, six Olympic-level Canadian athletes were banned from competition for life after tests proved they had taken steroids. Declares Montreal lawyer Richard Pound, a vice-president of the ioc: “It’s not a question of kicking you out for six months and going slap, slap, you’ve been a bad girl or boy. You have breached one of the fundamental ethics of sport and you shouldn’t be in it.” While the ioc and international sports federations have debated further tactics in the battle against drugs, Otto Jelinek, Canada’s minister of state for fitness and amateur sport, was the first politician to throw a government’s weight into the contest. His unequivocal doctrine: “There is no room in sport for drugs.” In 1985 Jelinek unveiled a severe new penalty for Canadian athletes: a lifetime ban on government funding. At the Calgary Winter Games, he will urge competing nations to adopt an international charter compelling Olympic-calibre athletes to submit to man-

datory drug tests long before they arrive at future games.

But in the charged arena of Olympic competition, where national as well as individual achievement is measured before the eyes of the world, the drug controversy goes well beyond simple considerations of cheating. “It’s a little bit like the arms race,” says Pound. “Unless you have verifiable procedures to ensure that they’re not doing it, why should we stop doing it? That’s a very complicated international issue.” Canadian athletes have openly challenged Jelinek’s unambiguous stand against drugs. Vancouver high jumper Debbie Brill, who won a gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, accuses him of being out of touch. Says Brill: “Drugs are now part of sport.” Canadian weight lifter Terry Hadlow, who took steroids for eight years before he was banned in 1984, agrees. “It is a win-at-all-costs syndrome,” he says. “You can’t look any further than the Olympic Games.”

Indeed, even as the Foothills laboratory was preparing to receive Olympic accreditation, ingenious competitors were discovering that they could mask the presence of steroids in their body with a second drug, probenicid, which inhibits the excretion of steroids in urine. Some observers predict that by the end of the century, new generations of chemically and genetically enhanced athletes will shatter today’s records. Lord Killanin, honorary life president of the ioc, says that drugs are the greatest threat to the Olympic ideal. Declares Killanin: “The evil is in creating an artificial person and obtaining false standards.”

During the 1988 Winter Games toxicologists and technicians will operate the Foothills laboratory up to 24 hours a day, screening roughly 450 urine samples in the 16-day period. After each event the top four performers plus one competitor chosen at random will provide a urine sample, which will be screened for every banned substance. Among cross-country skiers and speed skaters, whose sports require strength and endurance, suspicion will centre on steroids, the synthetic male sex hormone that helps build muscle. At the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Purevjal Batskuh, a 28-year-old Mongolian cross-country skier, was disqualified after testing positive for steroid use. For ski jumpers and rifle-toting biathletes, the focus will switch to beta-blockers, drugs that combat tension tremors by slowing the heartbeat. In sports where the

margin of victory is often measured in hundredths of seconds, banned compounds may make all the difference. Dr. Norman Gledhill, chairman of Canada’s federally funded Committee on Doping in Amateur Sport, notes that, in many events, “one or two per cent is the difference between first and last place.”

Some of the most effective banned performance-enhancers, however, cannot be detected. Even Foothills’ sophisticated equipment cannot distinguish between a synthetic human-growth hormone, which is the increasingly popular alternative to steroids, and hormones naturally present in the body. But while the abuse of the human-growth hormone is still rare, the practice of blooddoping is not. A quantity of an athlete’s blood is removed at least one month before a competition and then reinfused just before a meet. By increasing the blood supply, more oxygen can be supplied to the athlete’s muscles. The technique, which was banned last year by the ioc, has been especially popular among cross-country skiers. Finland’s Aki Karvonen, for one, admitted blood-doping after winning the silver and bronze medals at Sarajevo in 1984.

Canadian skier Pierre Harvey says that blood-doping was “an open secret” at the Sarajevo Olympics.

Laurent Roux, coach of Canada’s cross-country team, told Maclean’s that he seriously considered using the technique to lower his athletes’ times before deciding against it because of doubts about safety and fairness.

The modern Olympics first came face-to-face with drug use at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome when Danish cyclist Knud Jensen, 22, collapsed during a race, fatally fracturing his skull.

An autopsy showed that Jensen had taken a stimulant, roniacol, before competing. The subsequent autopsy did not link it with the accident, but two other Danish cyclists who also took the drug collapsed as well. Two years later the ioc established a committee to control drug use, and Olympic drug testing began in 1968. The first disqualification was handed to Hans Gunnar Lijenvall, a Swedish pentathlete at the 1968 Summer Games who had taken alcohol to steady his trigger finger. But it was the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas that galvanized officials into their current offensive. Tests in Caracas led to the disqualification of 19 athletes. Among them were two Canadian weight lifters: Guy Greavette, stripped of two gold medals and one silver, and Michel Viau, who forfeited three bronze medals. Both had used steroids. Former Canadian champion skier Ken Read, a member of the ioc Athletes Commission, recalls, “All of a sudden, drugs jumped from page 4 of the sports pages to page 1.” The alarm intensified after a record 11 athletes were disqualified at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for testing positively for steroid use. The following year a series of articles in American journals detailed the risks of extended steroid use. They included liver and kidney damage, high blood pressure and impotence in men, as well as menstrual irregularities, genital enlargement and masculinizing effects in women. Beyond that, the drugs had psychological effects.

Notes Dr. William Taylor, a medical researcher at Alabama’s United States Sports Academy: “Personality changes, violent behavior and criminal activity are all linked to long-term use.”

In the new climate of concern, Canada’s Otto Jelinek was one of the first to take action. In September, 1985, Jelinek rewrote Canadian spons policy to accommodate his sanctions against performance-enhancing drugs, widely regarded as the toughest in the world. Under that policy, a single offence can result in an athlete being barred for life from receiving any federal government assistance for training or travel. The policy got its first workout in July, 1986, when Jelinek issued lifetime bans to three weight lifters, two shot-putters and a discus thrower only days before they were to

leave for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Declares Jelinek: “I know exactly what I have done. I have ruined their athletic careers.” Recently Jelinek has expressed satisfaction that since his 1986 suspensions, no Canadian athletes have tested positively for drug use.

For many athletes, competing against rivals who have an illegal advantage is intimidating. U.S national cross-country ski champion Daniel Simoneau, 29, is concerned that his competitors at Calgary may blood-dope. “It’s discouraging,” he says. “You wonder whether it’s a waste of time to go for Olympic gold.” At the same time, top performers increasingly find their achievements are clouded, often groundlessly, by rumors that they have used drugs. After Canadian runner Ben Johnson set a new world record with a 9.83-second 100-m dash in Rome last August, American sprinter Carl Lewis said, “If I were to run on drugs, I could do 9.8 right away.” The frequently tested Johnson has never shown evidence of drug use.

Still, for some it is worth risking disgrace and possible ill-health in the hopes of becoming a medallist. In her autobiography, Jump, Debbie Brill wrote: “We’ve reached the point where only winners matter. Gold medals are everything. From this, it is a short step to drugs.” Many coaches and sports doctors agree. Says Dr. James Stray-Gundersen, a Dallasbased physiologist for the U.S. cross-country ski team: “You cannot be competitive now in international sport without using anabolic steroids.” Four U.S. cyclists used a similar argument to justify blood-doping before the 1984 Olympics. Participating in individual as well as relay events, they won four of the team’s nine medals. Edmund Burke, who was the team’s physiologist, says the cyclists resorted to the practice, then unprohibited, in response to public pressure. Says Burke: “The press just counts the medals.”

In a world split between superpowers, Olympic medals easily take on exaggerated political importance. East Germany spends an estimated $1.6 billion annually on athletics, supporting 80 special high schools where promising young athletes live full time. During the 1970s the number of masculine-looking women athletes competing for East Germany provoked frequent speculation about steroid use. Still, no East German athlete has ever failed an

Olympie drug test. Western athletes are equally susceptible to patriotic pressure. When U.S. speed skater Beth Heiden won the bronze medal in 1980, American reporters greeted her with questions that began, “Now that you have let your country down . . . .” Dr. William Stanish, chief medical officer for the Canadian Olympic team that will travel to Seoul this summer, claims that athletes “are soldiers. If they win, our culture is perceived as being the superior culture.”

Both athletes and ambitious nations may have trouble resisting the dazzling performance-enhancing techniques now under development. The options range from hormone manipulation and genetic engineering to implanted microcomputers. “We’re using bioengineering to make these people bigger, faster, stronger,” says Stanish. “And it’s going to get more barbaric. People will go to almost any length to enhance their performance.” One measure of athletes’ willingness to alter their bodies is the practice of delaying puberty in female gymnasts. Says Pound of the ioc: “The current rage in gymnastics is cute little girls, so you get people taking steps to prevent them from developing breasts.” Alabama’s Taylor finds disturbing evidence for what he calls the “Frankenstein syndrome.”

Every week several parents ask him to prescribe the human-growth hormone, used to treat dwarfism, for normal children. Says Taylor:

“Within five years there will be ways to insert into a fetus the gene that will make a person eight feet tall.”

It is a vision of the future that the ioc and Canada’s Jelinek are determined to prevent. Last year the ioc revamped its antidrug sanctions to allow more flexibility in penalizing offenders.

Now, when a single athlete in a team sport tests positive for drugs, the entire team may be banned from international competition for a period of years. At the same time, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the world’s governing body for track and field sports, approved a plan to begin surprise testing of athletes at training sites around the world. On the national level, the British government has announced an ambitious drug-testing program to begin in the spring that will screen athletes at major meets and during training. As well, major corporate sponsors of Olympic athletes have agreed in principle to an ioc request that any athletes caught using drugs will forfeit their lucrative contracts.

Canada’s Jelinek, meanwhile, has launched a campaign to establish an international antidrug charter backed by the top 21 Olympic nations. Jelinek’s charter would impose uniform rules for random testing of all Olympic athletes during training and at international meets. Offenders would be banned from competition and lose funding from their national governments. “Right now it’s a mishmash,” says Jelinek. “If we can get the top 21 countries on a level playing field, the rest of the world will follow suit.” By the end of last year most major competitor countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, had adopted the charter in principle. “The exception,” says Jelinek, “is East Germany.” During the

Calgary Games, delegates from the other nations will meet Olympic officials to discuss the proposal further.

Still, critics feel that Canada’s own antidrug policy is unfair. Discus thrower Robert Gray, the Commonwealth record holder, was among those banned in 1986 after urine taken at an Ottawa meet allegedly contained a steroid. Gray has challenged that finding, so far without success. “The testing room in 1986 was basically just a party,” says Gray. “The samples were kept in the same fridge as the apple juice and beer.” Former Canadian Olympic runner Bruce Kidd agrees that Canadian sport officials are being too harsh. Kidd, now a spokesman for the Athletes’ Resources Group, an informal network of active and retired Olympic athletes, says that lifetime competition bans amount to

“capital punishment for athletes.” He also accuses officials of sending mixed messages. “Some of their other policies,” says Kidd, “unwittingly increase the pressure on athletes to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs.” He is particularly concerned about Canada’s funding program for athletes, known as the “carding” system, which requires athletes to perform well against international competitors who may be using banned compounds. Harold Willers, a 29-year-old hammer thrower who now lives in Chilliwack, B.C., claims that it was that pressure that led him to take steroids for three months in 1985. “If I were to get nationally carded, it would take care of the rent,” Willers told Maclean's. “But I needed more meat to be the secondbest hammer thrower in the world.” Willers was banned in 1986.

New advances in sport medicine seem likely to only inflame the debate. Emerging supplies of human hormones, a product of gene-splicing and bioengineering, may render sanctions against steroids meaningless. Already, one newly available compound, erythropoietin, stimulates red blood cell production, delivering the same effect as blood-doping. Notes weight lifter Hadlow: “Sport has got ahold of technology, and it’s not going to let go.”

Certainly, the effort to eradicate drugs from sport will not be decided or even much influenced by events behind the closed doors of the various testing booths in Calgary. At most, those solitary contests between athlete and machine will determine only whether a handful of medallists will keep their prestige and their prizes. In the end, reflects medallist Dr. Robert Dugal of Montreal, a representative of the ioc’s medical commission, “it is a question of what we want sport to represent, a question of morality.” For an Olympic ideal already marred by pervasive commercialism and distorted by international politics, the expanding pharmacopoeia of performance-enhancing drugs represents an additional and insidious challenge.