SLAM!Sports
July 26, 2004
'We're drowning in urine'
Athletes on performance-enhancing drugs used to have a big lead but the testers are gaining rapidly.
By JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press


He's the Elliot Ness of the sports drug trade, she's the Madame Curie of forensics. Together they're in the vanguard of a fight to restore sportsmanship to sports.

Like Ness of the movie The Untouchables, Dick Pound brings an uncommon zeal to ridding sport of performance-enhancing drugs in his role as chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Fellow Montrealer Dr. Christiane Ayotte is the dedicated director of the National Institute of Scientific Research.

"We're drowning in urine," Ayotte said rather colourfully the other day. "No, to be more accurate, we're swimming in it."

Her lab is full of coded urine samples gleaned from athletes throughout the world. It undertakes 5,500 to 6,000 tests for banned substances a year, most of them from international athletes, including pro tennis and, recently, major league baseball.

She has no idea who peed in what bottle, only a code number. Hers is a growth industry as more funding has led to increased in- and out-of-competition testing, all of it the result of political will.

Some athletes and their handlers are screaming. Pound loves it.

"None of the criticism comes from the public at large or the athletes who play fair," Pound says. "It's with their entourage or professional advisers or with athletes stuck or charged with doping. I'm happy to be known by my enemies."

Pound, a lawyer, accountant, former Olympic swimmer and the man most credited with making the Olympics as wealthy as they are during his rights negotiations as International Olympics Committee vice-president, has an unrelenting view of sports cheats.

He hates them and all that they represent. He appeals to the public at large in a visceral way.

"I say, 'I don't want my kid or grandchild or your kid or grandchild to become a chemical stockpile in order to be good at sport. Do you? I don't want my countryman or your countryman to be cheated out of a place he or she deserves. Do you?' People sort of sit up and blink. I don't want people just thinking about fair play, I want them insisting on it."

Pound, a founding director of WADA, was delighted with U.S. President George W. Bush's state of the union address and its impact on his cause.

"Basically, he was saying 'Either you guys better get this solved or we'll solve it.' Combine that with public statements he's made recently relating to the BALCO stuff -- where the indictments have been preferred not by the San Francisco prosecuting attorney but the Attorney General of the United States. They've aimed at the upstream folks for the first time, not just the athletes."

BALCO is the acronym for Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. Investigators have linked a number of elite amateur athletes and professionals to the lab, which manufactures performance-enhancing drugs, including what have been called designer steroids -- muscle-building chemicals that are difficult to detect.

Pound feels pressure exerted by WADA went a long way toward the White House stance on cheating in sports via banned substances.

"WADA had been all over the United States Olympic Committee and U.S. track and field and my feeling is that at some point, somebody at the White House said, 'Why are we getting all this?' Somebody else might have said that basically, the U.S. is regarded as a kind of rogue nation in the world of sport as a result of what is going on in professional sports and the tests covered up by the USOC and came to the conclusion 'We've become the thugs, the new East Germans.' "

The former East Germany, of course, was considered the birthplace of the scientifically juiced athlete. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, endless stories have emerged about the state-sponsored laboratories designed to give all elite athletes an extra boost while beating drug tests of the 1970s and '80s.

Ayotte knows all about it. She was a young scientist during the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and watched as the East Germans, particularly the deep-voiced and masculine-looking women athletes -- one of whom has since become a man after a sex-change operation -- won medal after medal.

"Oh, I remember the East Germans," she said. "The lab was formed for the '76 Olympics and I must say that the testing methods then were nothing compared with today. We were in our infancy and not efficient at all. But with new equipment such as the mass spectrometer along with improvements in electronics and computers, we've come a long way."

But have they come far enough? The Athens Olympics just around the corner might be an indication. To date, there has been an amazing fall-off in athletic performances from some elite athletes. Yet it is clear there are labs seeking to get their juiced-up athletes through testing via new and altered anabolic steroids.

"We're used to it. Uncovering the use of a new doping agent is business as usual now," Ayotte said. "What THG and EPO (new weapons in the cheaters' arsenal) have taught us is that some people out there are willing to abuse the athletes and use them as guinea pigs because of (the athletes') tremendous vulnerabilities. We have to work much harder on educating the athletes and changing the culture of certain sports."

The labs have to be on top of everything, Ayotte says, or their threat is removed.

"When athletes take the decision 'should I dope or not,' they're going to balance the benefits and disadvantages and if they feel they won't get caught by the testing system, the deterrent factor is lost."

Ayotte and her staff even inject themselves with some of the banned substances.

"We have no choice. If we want to report a positive, we need reference samples. We don't take the dosage of athletes, just small ones, finger-prints. If it's something dangerous, such as heroin, we spike the sample."

Pound says "you hear rumours of new stuff out there. We have our tentacles out about what it is, who is doing it and where it comes from."

Once Ayotte gets a sample, her lab is quick in identifying it so a new steroid is unmasked.

You might wonder why athletes, given the known health dangers connected with some of the substances they've been taking, even consider it. One reason is the overwhelming desire to win. Another is economic.

If you're among the fastest or strongest or show the most endurance, there are millions of dollars in endorsements. Who remembers the athlete who finished in fifth place?

Which brings up an interesting question. Some of those athletes didn't win because they were clean, abiding by the rules. Is there a chance those athletes later proved to have won because of chemical assistance could be forced to give up their medals, or at least have an asterisk beside their names in the record books?

Alas, no.

"Under the rules, it could not be done retroactively," Pound said. "If you won a medal, provided a sample and it was not positive, that was the end of it. The rule now says you've got to resolve the problems out of Sydney (2000 Olympics) before Athens, so there's a four-year limitation."

That said, a number of athletes have been nabbed through testing in that time frame and have been forced to return their medals. Another weapon the anti-drug forces have is that evidence beyond a sample (such as proof an athlete has been a customer of a known rogue lab) can result in a suspension of up to life.

Huge strides have been made but both Pound and Ayotte stress the battle against performance-enhancing substances is not over. Athletes always have and always will look for an edge. Some will take whatever means necessary if they think they can get away with it.

Some sports federations and more than 60 countries are signatories to the Anti-Doping Code but some are still dragging their feet. Pro sports, which tend to ignore what the rest of the world is doing in the interests of gigantic home runs, etc., are beginning to come around, albeit under pressure, to apply the same standards to performance-enhancing drugs as they have always done regarding recreational drugs.

Huge strides have been made but nobody has deluded themselves into thinking anything but constant vigilance will be as much a part of sport as it is of anti-terrorism.

Pound was Churchillian when asked where the good guys are in relation to the guys who once considered themselves untouchable.

"As Winston Churchill said, this is not the end. It's not even the beginning of the end. But it's the end of the beginning."

An apt comment for a war.


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