OLYMPICS

Rope-a-dope

Will a new regimen of stringent drug tests really cean the Games

January 30 2006
OLYMPICS

Rope-a-dope

Will a new regimen of stringent drug tests really cean the Games

January 30 2006

Rope-a-dope

Will a new regimen of stringent drug tests really cean the Games

OLYMPICS

BY KEN MACQUEEN • It would be flat-out wrong to call Beckie Scott a cynic. What Scott is—besides being Canada’s queen of crosscountry skiing and the national antidote to Ben Johnson—is a hard-nosed realist, albeit one with an easy laugh and an incandescent smile. Ask her what the likelihood is she’ll face a pristine group of competitors in Turin and not the sort of lowlifes who tried to cheat her out of a gold in Salt Lake City four years ago, and she heaves a little sigh. “I think the field is cleaner,” she says. “I wouldn’t say much cleaner,” she adds. “There’s still a long road ahead before we see a really clean sport.” There was a time, it seems long ago now, when she actually believed that cross-country

Don’t hold your breath, says Becky Scott. ‘There’s still a long road ahead before we see a really dean sport.’

skiing was as pure as the driven snow. How could you not wish that of a sport you love, of a sport that consumed so much of her childhood winters in Vermillion, Alta., and has defined her entire adult life? That heroic illusion—a field of fair-minded competitors racing through snow-blanketed forest and field—began to melt away by 1997, when she learned of a Russian competitor caught abusing steroids. “It was a surprise to me at the time,” she admitted years later, with a rueful smile at her own naïveté. Other doping scandals followed—notably for her, the two Russian women who beat her in the five-kilometre pursuit in Utah. Their use of a blood booster eventually caused the International Olympic Committee to strip them of their Olympic medals. All it took for Scott to win her rightfill gold as the first clean woman across the finish line were 22 draining months of hearings, endless appeals, and a ruling by the court of arbitration for sport.

Even before this, Scott was a critic of doping athletes and inadequate testing. Her blunt condemnation sparked a feud with perhaps the only Canadian in sport more outspoken on the subject than she: Richard Pound, the veteran Canadian member of the IOC and chairman of the Montreal-based World AntiDoping Agency (WADA). When Scott condemned the rampant cheating at the 2002 Games, Pound fired back, demanding proof instead of a “rant.” A war of words followed, but over time they also formed an uneasy alliance. “Beckie got a bronze medal,” Pound says today. “It was the guys in suits who got her to gold. We were working for exactly the same thing that she was, but you have to have credible evidence of the doping practice.” Scott is now one of 12 international competitors on WADA’s athletes’ committee. She’s also Canada’s nominee for a prestigious seat on the IOC, in a vote that will be held in Turin. Are she and Pound pals now? “Yeah,” Scott says with a chuckle, “he’s friendly.”

Pound is more optimistic than his former sparring partner about the prospects of a cleaner Olympics in Turin. Much has changed since Salt Lake City, he says. There is now a world anti-doping code in place, and a universally agreed-to set of sanctions and governmental responses to infractions. In theory, at least. Clouding this is Italy’s insistence on applying its own anti-doping laws, which call for criminal penalties rather than sporting sanctions and suspensions. Here, again, Scott and Pound differ. She sees nothing wrong with calling cheating a crime. Pound, a lawyer, warns the higher burden of proof is fraught with problems and delays. “We have to be able to get people out between the heat and the semifinal if there’s a positive test.”

If anyone doubts the IOC’s resolve, look at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, says Pound. It was, quite literally, a peeing match between cheating athletes and the Olympic committee. More than 20 athletes were shown the gate or were later stripped of medals for doping, or for elaborately unpleasant schemes to substitute urine samples. “We got people there not just for testing positive,” he says, “but for refusing tests, and for using some of these infernal devices that they were stuffing up their butts with somebody else’s urine.” As telling, he says, were those scared off from attending the Games, and those who escaped testing by finishing at the back of the pack.

While Pound claims at least limited victory, disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson says otherwise. Johnson—who precipitated an international firestorm and a national crisis of conscience when he was stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Games in Seoul for testing positive for an anabolic steroid—made headlines in Britain earlier this year by insisting 40 per cent of people in sports are cheating. “It is not only track and field, there are soccer players, football players, basketball players, cyclists,” he said. He offered no evidence, and Pound dismisses his claims as baseless rambling. “I don’t consider him as a particularly reliable source about anything,” he says, “including the day of the week.”

Still, almost 18 years after Johnson’s disgrace, the only certainty is that the cheating has grown more elaborate, as have the measures to combat it. Today’s Olympic athletes can expect to be tested not only if they win medals, but also during non-Olympic events and during training. There are even surprise visits to athletes’ homes—a violation of pri-

vacy that would be considered intolerable most anywhere outside the sporting world. In Turin, athletes will face half again as many tests as were conducted in Utah. And, Pound hints, tests will be unveiled for substances that were previously undetectable. “Catching somebody in the act,” he says, “has more of a deterrent effect than a quiet word going to the community that there is a test for this now.”

The list of banned substances and practices devised by WADA for international events in 2006 stretches 21 pages. It includes tongue-twisting groups of anabolic agents, hormones, blood boosters, stimulants, narcotics, even such futuristic practices as “gene doping.” Coupled with WADA’s list is a 35page set of anti-doping rules the IOC devised for Turin. Medallists, many top finishers, and all who break Olympic and world records can expect to be tested. But any athlete, at any time during the Games, is subject to random demands for “biological samples” of urine or blood. As techniques for thwarting tests grow, so has the level of mistrust. The rules for urine collection stretch more than a page, specifying the kind of bottle, the sample size and the discomfiting view of the official observer. “The athlete will be required to remove any clothing (at least pants to knees, shirt to mid-chest, and sleeves rolled up) preventing the [observer’s] direct observation of the urine sample leaving the athlete’s body.” If they’re caught, in other words, it will be with their pants down.

A funny thing happened in the years since the Salt Lake City doping scandal: Canadian cross-country skiers—notably Scott and her friend and teammate Sara Renner—moved relentlessly up the World Cup rankings. There are complex reasons for this. A long apprenticeship is required for Nordic skiing—an endurance sport heavy on tactics and technique. Scott, 31, and Renner, 29, have clearly hit their prime. But there may be another element, too. Perhaps for the first time in their long careers they are racing against a cleaner field.

“I sure hope so,” says Pound. Renner and Scott add cautious agreement. “The more level the playing field, the better the chances are for people who come to the races with equal preparation,” says Scott. “I definitely think that has played a role in our success.” Well, at least the majority are clean, says Renner, and the rest are beyond your control. It’s your performance that matters, she says. “You have to know that dopers can be beaten.”

In December, for the first time in more than a decade, nine days of World Cup crosscountry events were held in Canada, near Vernon, B.C., and in Canmore, Alta., Renner’s hometown. Excitement built over the course of the event, and the final races were held before roaring crowds under ice-blue Alberta skies. The snow was pristine, and the sounds of cowbells and the cheers of children echoed through the mountains.

By the end, Scott and Renner had combined to win an unprecedented seven medals against an international field. But it wasn’t just the winning that seemed to energize them. It looked right. It looked pure—the way racing must have seemed when they were kids themselves. The way it might yet be again. M