Technological wizardry will try to keep the Olympics clean—but is it enough?
The Drug Detectives
Technological wizardry will try to keep the Olympics clean—but is it enough?
The runners and javelin throwers of ancient Greece and Rome sought out supposedly magic potions. American Thomas Hicks was more pragmatic, winning the 1904 marathon fuelled by brandy and strychnine, a nerve stimulant. The 1956 hammer-throwing champion, Harold Connolly of the United States, later said he had been taking muscle-building steroids for the previous eight years. Then, in 1960, an autopsy found amphetamines in the body of Danish cyclist Knut Enemark Jensen, who fractured his skull when he fell during a road race—and the International Olympic Committee had seen enough of drugs in sports. The IOC introduced testing at the 1968 Mexico City Games and made it allinclusive at Munich in 1972. But the abuses have continued—44 athletes, including Canada’s Ben Johnson, have been caught at the Games since—and now the biggest crackdown in Olympic history will take place in Atlanta.
How well it works will depend on what happens when supertechnology matches wits with human duplicity. The IOC’s anti-
doping team will deploy handpicked technicians and three $700,000 high-resolution mass spectrometers, said to be five to 10 times more sensitive to the telltale traces of banned drugs than any other device available. The process is pricey—perhaps $800 per test. But a spokesman for Finnigan MAT company in Raleigh, N.C., which manufactures the spectrometers, says the firm sells about 30 each year all over the world. Some, he allows, may be helping athletes to beat the tests they will confront in Atlanta by revealing how easy substances are to detect and how soon they disappear from the system.
For the Olympics and the people who run them, unmasking abusers is becoming more and more difficult. Athletes, eyeing the hundreds of thousands of dollars that commercial sponsors and grateful governments are prepared to lavish on the winners, are constantly discovering ingenious ways to avoid detection. A few of them: contaminating a urine sample with bacteria from the finger; drinking fluids containing a high concentration of vinegar, which will foil some tests; women showing up for testing with condoms containing “clean” urine concealed in the vagina; injecting or inhaling adrenaline, for a short burst; swallowing drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease because some are stimulants.
And coming soon, says Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale, assistant professor of physical and health education at the University of Toronto, are designer drugs so new they have not yet appeared in the scientific literature. “The athlete keeps inventing different stuff,” he says. “There’s an infinite number of compounds.” Christiane Ayotte, director of the anti-doping department at Montreal’s National Institute of Scientific Research, was mystified by one
that kept showing up in urine samples from athletes in Europe and North America. After two years of study, she identified the substance as Bromantane, a stimulant produced by the Russian Pharmaceutical Institute. “There are no clinical studies with this substance, no toxicity studies, nothing,” she says.
Quite apart from designer drugs, scientists say, the more widely used chemicals are causing enough headaches. For example, the latest technology cannot distinguish between naturally produced hormones—such as human growth hormone, Insulin Growth Factor-1 and erythropoietin—and the synthetic ones manufactured by drug companies for legitimate medical purposes. HGH and IGF-1 are used by athletes to build muscles or increase lean body mass. Runners, cyclists, swimmers and boxers know that erythropoietin can increase endurance by as much as 25 per cent. The European Union has set aside $1.4 million for scientists in search of a method of detecting illicit human growth hormone.
Despite the scale of the ongoing challenge, the Olympics and
other global sports organizations have scored notable victories in the drug war. By far the most sensational was the disqualification of Canada’s Johnson at Seoul in 1988. IOC vice-president Dick Pound, a Montreal lawyer, learned of Johnson’s fate at a luncheon for Olympic sponsors not long after the sprinter had struck gold in the 100 m. Pound says he was pulled aside by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who looked ashen-faced. “I said, ‘For God’s sake, has somebody died?’ ” Pound recalls. “Samaranch said, ‘Worse—Ben Johnson has tested positive’ ” for anabolic steroids.
Canadians were stunned by Johnson’s dramatic fall from grace and the subsequent revelations at the inquiry headed by retired Ontario Court of Appeal Chief Justice Charles Dubin into drug use in sports. In September, 1991, then-federal Sports Minister Pierre Cadieux increased the two-year ban to four for athletes caught using drugs. More importantly, he created a body—now called the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport—based in the Ottawa suburb of Gloucester, and gave its 13-member staff an annual budget of $3.1 million to police athletes across the sports spectrum. But Canadian sprinters still labor under the cloud of suspicion left by Johnson. Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Committee—the target of frequent criticism by Canada and European countries for being soft on drugs—approved last April what a USOC task force described as the world’s toughest anti-drug package. However, the USOC’s executive committee raised some eyebrows when it said there was not enough time to get the rules ready for Atlanta.
Although the sordid history of doping is as old as competitive sports, the means and the will to fight it did not really emerge until the 1972 Games. The first noteworthy casualty that year was American swimmer Rick DeMont, who lost his gold medal in the 400-m freestyle when a drug test turned up ephedrine, which he took for asthma. In 1974, scientist Raymond Brooks developed a way to identify anabolic steroids. Two years later in Montreal, seven of eight disqualified weightlifters were found to be taking the musclebuilding medicine. Eleven athletes were caught at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, 10—including Johnson—at Seoul and five at Barcelona in 1992.
Yet another embarrassment occurred in 1994, when China’s women swimmers won 12 of 16 gold medals at the world championships in Rome and swept the field at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan. Seven of the women subsequently flunked drug tests and Chinese athletes were banned from the 1995 Pan-Pacific swim meet. Now, China claims to have introduced tough testing and is ready for Atlanta. Rival coaches still accuse the Chinese, but former Chinese head coach Chen Yunpen says: “I’m very sure they are clean of drugs.” The drug hunt hit home again earlier this year. Eric Lamaze of Schömberg, Ont., failed a doping test during the Canadian equestrian team’s Olympic trials at Calgary’s Spruce Meadows on June 5. He had finished second. On June 25, a second sample tested positive for cocaine and the following day, the Canadian Equestrian Federation delivered its verdict: if Lamaze chose not to appeal the findings, he would be banished from show jumping competition for four years. “It’s a shocking thing, it’s not what I’m about,” said Lamaze. “It’s not what I build my life to be.” Lamaze is appealing the verdict, although the outcome is irrelevant to the Atlanta Games: he has since broken his leg.
The IOC and other sports governing bodies are not a drug-using athlete’s only enemies—fellow competitors are not above blowing the whistle. In 1988 at Seoul, someone slipped a note under the door of Canadian middle-distance runner Lynn Williams, a bronze medalist four years earlier. The note, in poorly written English, anonymously accused her female competitors of doping. Williams’s coach, Doug Clement, turned the note over to the IOC but nothing could be done because the accuser remained anonymous.
Not all substance-abuse cases end in disgrace. Last April, U.S. swimmer Jessica Foschi was exonerated by a U.S. Olympic Committee arbitration panel. The 15-year-old had tested positive for steroids at the 1995 national championships in Pasadena, Calif., but there was some suspicion that she had been sabotaged. In another case, tests performed at a competition in Portugal in 1994 disclosed that British 800-m runner Diane Modahl had 42 times the legal amount of testosterone. However, the results were not forwarded for nine weeks to the British Athletic Federation, which banned her. Modahl argued that the test had been contaminated and not refrigerated, and experts later agreed. The federation lifted its ban last year and the International Amateur Athletic Federation finally concurred in late March. She is now suing the British federation.
Lawsuits in the wake of bans and suspensions have become commonplace. In an attempt to keep disputes all in the family, the athletes who turn up in Atlanta will be required to sign an agreement which gives a court of sport arbitration the final word on such disagreements. While some agents and athletes complained that such a court would be unlikely to exonerate them, Pound says: “Up until now, if an athlete tested positive during the 100 m, for example, there was not enough time to appeal the case before the 200-m race. Now, if an athlete says, ‘I want a hearing tonight because I am running in the 200-m tomorrow,’ he can have one.” Besides, adds Pound: “If you don’t sign, you ain’t coming.” But they are coming, by the thousands. And if the past is any indicator, the medal winners may share the headlines with the disgraced.
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