Doping Control Tops the Agenda at Sydney Games


By John Hoberman, Published in the Toronto Star

Five years ago one of the great runners of Olympic history told me how the doping epidemic in elite sport had finally made it impossible for him to enjoy the Games. Since the 1972 Munich Olympiad, he said, uncertainty about drug use by Olympic athletes had made it impossible to know “who the real winners are.” Like other veterans of the pre-doping era, this Olympic champion had lived to see his sport transformed by the anabolic steroids and other synthetic hormones that, over the past generation, have become an integral part of some Olympic sports.

The urgent question hanging over the Sydney Games is whether the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the sports federations affiliated with the IOC can reverse this pharmacological corruption of high-performance sport. One major obstacle is that the IOC delayed taking real action on research and enforcement for many years. A credible anti-doping effort did not even begin until 1998, a full 30 years after the IOC instituted limited drug testing in 1968. Between those Mexico City Games and the 1996 Atlanta Olympiad, IOC drug testing produced 52 positive tests in some 54,000 athletes – fewer than one per thousand. No one familiar with the doping practices of elite athletes took Olympic drug testing seriously.

Anti-doping reform was finally set into motion by the great doping scandal that ruined the 1998 Tour de France cycling race. For the first time, the world saw credible evidence of systematic and secretive doping of elite athletes outside the former East Germany. The president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, responded to this crisis by proposing medically supervised (or “safe”) doping for Olympic athletes. The hostile response he got prompted the IOC to schedule a World Anti-Doping Conference that took place in February 1999.

At this meeting a series of government officials harshly criticized the IOC for its failed record in the area of doping control. The positive result of this conference was the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that was inaugurated in Lausanne on January 13, 2000. Jointly operated by the IOC and outside members, WADA lacks the independence a fully credible agency must have. Still, the transparency and accountability this consortium brings to international doping control is unprecedented. In retrospect, it is clear that only powerful non-IOC voices could change the politics of doping in a fundamental way.

Despite the efforts of WADA and Australian drug testers, the anti-doping operation in Sydney faces some daunting challenges. One is the black market in imported performance-enhancing drugs that has exploded in recent years. Australian customs officials made 968 seizures during the period 1998-99, and organized crime is reported to have entered this illicit trade.

This market is fed by the doping mentality that causes a significant number of elite athletes to take banned drugs such as testosterone, human growth hormone, and the red-blood cell booster erythropoietin (EPO), the drug that sank the 1998 Tour. This mentality has been promoted in turn by the commercialization of Olympic sport during Samaranch’s 20-year presidency. And as the financial stakes have grown, national and international sports bureaucrats from Samaranch on down have developed a doping mentality of their own.

The Olympic movement has won the affection of its global public by serving as a make-believe peace movement dressed up as athletic entertainment. It has also become one of the great marketing vehicles of all time. Any threat to the image of the Games endangers an entire caste of sports bureaucrats and the massive Olympic advertising campaigns that keep the IOC in business. That is why the bureaucrats have lacked the political will to institute effective drug testing. For there is nothing like a doping scandal and its aura of disgrace to alienate corporate sponsors and make people ask whether the Games have become too corrupt to deserve their support.

“The networks don’t want to know,” says Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “In my opinion, it’s very easy for a network to be very convincing in closed-door meetings with the IOC. ‘Let’s do whatever we have to, nothing more, nothing less’.” This interlocking web of vested interests is targeted in the report just released by the White House office of national drug policy headed by the American “drug czar,” Gen. Barry McCaffrey. The hollow core of thirty years of IOC doping control is now a matter of record.

The sagging reputation of the IOC, which is still reeling from the 1999 bribery scandal, makes the drug testing operation at the Sydney Games a crucial test for the “reformed” Olympians. For the first time in Olympic history, doping control will be something more than the public relations operation that yielded a grand total of two steroid positives among the 10,000 athletes who competed in Atlanta.

Australian officials seem determined to put on the cleanest Games ever as a matter of national pride. “If we can look back and say that we changed the face of world sport because of what we did with drugs at the 2000 Olympics,” says one anti-doping official, “that would be just wonderful.”

A week before the Games, the rehabilitation of Olympic doping control seemed to have begun. When China withdrew some athletes who had allegedly failed blood tests at home, Olympic officials were jubilant. The threat of their newly approved EPO test, they declared, had already demonstrated its effectiveness as a deterrent. The announcement of this test prompted IOC-president Juan Antonio Samaranch to announce that the end of the doping era was now in sight. “Winning the war against doping will be easy,” he said, “because now they can detect all the drugs that are being used.”

Doping experts quickly contradicted this strangely ignorant statement. “Samaranch doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said the head of the Australian Sports Drugs Agency. It was, after all, well known that athletes could use human growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, and low doses of testosterone with impunity, simply because there is still no way to test for them.

The major innovation of the Sydney Games is the test for EPO, the blood-boosting synthetic hormone that is reputed to be the drug of choice of many endurance athletes such as runners, cyclists, and swimmers. This procedure consists of a blood test and a urine test, and an athlete must fail both to incur a doping violation. The great limitation of this test is that, while the blood test can detect EPO use over the previous four weeks, the urine test can detect use only over the previous three days.

This means that, since EPO can boost performance up to four weeks after it is taken, an EPO-abusing athlete could use the drug anywhere from one to four weeks before arriving in Sydney and still pass the new test. While some potential cheaters will be deterred, others will gain an unfair advantage with little or no fear of detection.

Nor has the IOC helped matters by its apparent refusal to subject the eventual medal winners to the new test. The plan is to carry out between 300 and 400 unannounced tests in Sydney on athletes who might be tempted to use the drug to improve their endurance. But if the IOC has so much confidence in this test, why not certify the EPO-free status of Olympic medalists by subjecting them to this new procedure? Once again, the IOC has raised questions about its commitment to exposing athletes who cheat.

One of the lesser known stories of the EPO crisis concerns Francesco Conconi, an Italian sports physician the IOC Medical Commission hired in 1994 to find a reliable test for EPO. The curious thing about this appointment was that Conconi had already acquired a reputation among elite athletes as a skilled blood doper operating on both sides of the line that separates legitimate research from doping.

In 1985 the Swedish coach Bengt-Herman Nilsson, who had served as a cross-country skiing trainer in Italy in 1968, connected Conconi with an unexpected Italian victory in a ski-relay race. “Medically and physiologically,” he said, “the Italians are far ahead. Their medical organization is well developed. The best known person is Professor Conconi. It is no secret that Professor Conconi has been doing experiments on blood transfers.”

In 1997, Sandro Donati, now head of research at the Italian Olympic Committee, issued a report, based on interviews with two dozen riders and coaches, identifying Conconi as the “central figure” involved in EPO doping. In October 1998 Italian police searched Conconi’s home and office looking for evidence of collusion in EPO doping. By February 2000 he was under investigation due to allegations of criminal association in connection with the doping of Italian athletes. “Science is not doping,”Conconi protested after the first police raids, wrapping himself in the image of the unworldly scientist he is not.

The truth, of course, is that science and doping are inseparable, and this is why the doping crisis in sport should interest all of us. For with genetic engineering just around the corner, it is the future of the human species that is at stake.

For the past century, Olympic sport has been what a German sports scientist once called “a gigantic experiment on the human organism,” a vast public operating theater where human minds and bodies have been subjected to increasing levels of pain and stress in the pursuit of higher and higher levels of performance. At some point such a project must begin to crash, and that is what has been happening over the past twenty years. The unending parade of doping scandals are dramatic evidence that high-performance sport simply asks too much of the human organism.

As the head of the IOC Medical Commission, Alexander de Merode, said in 1988: “In some ways, what is being asked of athletes may be more than the human body can do. Top athletes are workers like other workers, but nobody takes care to protect them against themselves and against those that employ them.” This Olympic official knew that athletes were dealing with intolerable levels of stress, and then did nothing to decrease the inhuman demands of Olympic sport. Small wonder he has always opposed strict doping penalties. He knows that some athletes need their drugs just to make it through the day.

The great irony of the doping crisis is that today’s synthetic hormones will be largely obsolete within about a decade. Some athletes competing in Sydney may already be circumventing the EPO testing by using blood substitutes like Hemopure or the veterinary drug Oxyglobin, which is used to treat anemia in dogs.

But the real threat to human athletic competition as we know it is genetic therapies that will build muscle, promote the growth of blood vessels, and boost the body’s production of naturally occurring hormones like testosterone or human growth hormone. All of these techniques will appeal to the more ambitious type of sports physician who already accepts hormone doping. A medical scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, working on a gene therapy to build the strength of patients with muscular dystrophy, was contacted years ago by a sports scientist who wanted to apply his technique to athletes.

The Sydney Games are one of our last opportunities to prevent the further transformation of sport into a high-performance freak show. As the president of the French Biotechnology Institute put it recently: “We may eventually see competitions in which the athletes’ bodies have been allowed to be modified, but under safe medical supervision.” One can only wonder whether the sporting public in 2015 will call these performers “athletes” or “creatures.”

John Hoberman is a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas. He is the author of Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport (1992).

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