Chasing the drug cheats

  • Image credit: iStockphoto
  • Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong "“ often suspected, never proven beyond doubt. Image credit: Bongarts/Getty Images
  • Drug tests became the norm in the 1960s. Image credit: iStockphoto
  • Image credit: iStockphoto
  • Steroid use is accepted in horse racing. Image credit: iStockphoto
  • Tim Noakes
Date:31 July 2008 Tags:, , , , , , ,

In sport at the highest level, the pressure to succeed is immense. Competitors find it hard to resist a little help – even if that means doping

Faster, higher, stronger. . The Olympic motto will take centre stage once again next month when the spectacle of the 2008 games unfolds in Beijing, China.

But even as we thrill to the performances of breathtaking speed or power, others will be keeping watch on the darker side of athletic achievement. A small army of test officials will have the job of ensuring that what wins the gold medals is not somehow assisted by illegal means.

There’s evidence to suggest that performance-enhancers have always been part of sport, certainly as far back as the ancient Greeks. Ruthless competitors down the ages had no qualms about subverting the ideals of sportsmanship – if it meant they would triumph.

Then as now, the paying public expects nothing less than the best from their heroes. Superhuman efforts are a given. The question is, can superhuman efforts be fuelled on nothing other than clean living and a good diet?

The depressingly regular additions to doping’s Hall of Shame suggest otherwise.

Since drug tests became the norm in the 1960s, they’ve snared countless drug cheats. Sadly, ingenious methods – and new drugs – are continually being developed to escape detection. Doping police are always playing catch-up.

As more and more money pours into sport, the stakes have soared. Not surprisingly, the shadowy presence of organised crime has loomed ever larger.

Athletics and cycling have been the two sports most associated with performance enhancers.

In recent years, despite several well-publicised scandals – among them protracted criminal trials, the red-flagging of entire teams, and the disqualification of winners – the Tour de France continues to capture the world’s imagination. This annual three-week sufferfest makes extraordinary demands of its participants.

One, Briton Tommy Simpson, died on the event while doped to the eyeballs on amphetamines. Others such as former winner Marco Pantani have died afterwards in circumstances that pointed to the involvement of drugs. In the 1970s and 80s a rash of young riders died showing circulatory ailments unheard of at their age – including the telltale thickened blood indicating EPO use (see “What makes them run” on page 6). Several top riders were forced to withdraw from the 2006 Tour after Spanish police launched Operaçion Puerto, which investigated athletics, football, cycling and tennis.

Among the Olympic and world champions who were found guilty in the court of doping are Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Tim Montgomery. Jones’s high-profile case (she was imprisoned in connection with doping dating back to 1999) led to the downfall of California’s Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, a nutritional supplement company linked to many top athletes. Balco’s founders were found guilty of steroid distribution and money laundering.

In a sequel to his positive drug test in 2003, British sprinter Dwain Chambers presented British anti-doping authorities with a detailed account of his drug regimen – written by the man who’d supplied him, Victor Conte of Balco. Conte had served a four-month prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering.

According to a report in the UK , Conte wrote that his performance-enhancing drug programme contained seven prohibited substances including “designer steroid” THG, testosterone/epitestosterone cream, EPO, human growth hormone, and insulin. Some of the substances cannot be tested for.

In the USA, high-profile doping cases have recently begun to make headlines in baseball and football. Retired record-setting baseballer Mark McGwire has been questioned about steroid use, as has current ’ball star Barry Bonds.

Locally, positive testers have included Olympic silver medallist Hezekiel Sepeng, who tested positive for steroids, as well as more than one Comrades Marathon runner.

Rugby has thrown up an occasional positive test. One recent notable was a member of the Italian rugby team that visited South Africa at midyear. Italy’s former SA under-21 lock Carlo del Fava, according to rugby web site, had earlier earned a two-year ban for steroid use. Del Fava, who now plays his rugby in Europe, was reported to have blamed his actions on youthful ignorance.

Even governments got involved. State-supervised doping was a reality in communist East Germany, a relatively small country that became one of the Olympics’ greatest medal-winning powers. From nine golds in 1968, its tally increased to 40 just eight years later. Many of those drugged were mere children.

Although non-therapeutic use of steroids for humans is banned, the same rule doesn’t apply to the animal kingdom – for now, at least.

The wide use of steroids in US horse racing was also highlighted recently when top racehorse Big Brown made a bid for that country’s Triple Crown. Steroid use is legal and widespread in most of the USA’s racing states. They’re used as a booster for listlessness or poor appetite. However, there are moves to severely limit steroid use outside of competition.

Now, though, there’s a new kid on the block that could make drugs obsolete. Genetically tweaked super-athletes will be all but impossible to beat – and all but impossible to police, says anti-doping expert and former CEO of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport, Daphne Bradbury. Apart from the risks involved, there are also ethical issues.

“It has the potential of creating a Frankenstein nightmare, really.

“There have already been reports from Germany of people being sued. Somebody produced a video with coaches discussing gene therapy.”

Unlike other performance-enhancing drugs, there are no conventional tests for gene therapy. “To test for gene therapy, you’d need to take a biopsy. That’s invasive.”

Bradbury said that even existing doping agents and tests were being circumvented by increasingly inventive means that blurred the lines between artificial and natural. Substances were available that stimulated the body to produce a natural version of the red-blood-cell-booster, EPO. “It’s a huge area of concern. There will be athletes who will get involved in this.”

On track – and doping
Down on the velodrome track, in his prime the imposing physique with bulging thighs would have identified Shawn Lynch as a sprinter. Today, Lynch says, thanks to the help of performance enhancers, sprinters are almost indistinguishable from the whippet-like “stayers”.

At his peak, he was good enough to represent both Great Britain and South Africa, but he realised that something funny was going on. “I couldn’t believe how from one year to the next guys I’d been competing against suddenly became so big and so fast. Also-rans became champions.”

Convinced doping was the answer, he began taking performance aids himself. Twice suspended for testing positive, he says: “I was naïve. There is no reason to get caught nowadays.”

Given his background, he simply doesn’t buy the instinctive denials of athletes who test positive. His blunt response: “If you get caught, just own up and take the punishment.”

Lynch says the average sportsman doesn’t have a clue about what really goes on. “When they take the step to become an athlete at the top of the sport the rules change. Anything that makes you better is definitely a consideration.

“Sport is a huge money-making thing,” he says. “People are driven by greed and ambition. I have been there. I know it involves hard work, but that is not the only thing. At the top, you are always looking for that little bit extra.”

If anything, he believes that doping has tapered off in general. But that has nothing to do with not wanting to use drugs. It’s simply because managements, medical staff and the athletes themselves are more knowledgeable and the practice has become more controlled.

“The problem comes from the ill-informed athletes. The weekend warrior who wants to beat his friend at the Argus Cycle Tour. He gets ripped off by paying R5 000 for a box of Eprex (EPO). He then goes and doses himself with something he knows nothing about. That’s dangerous.”

He says that access to the substances involved is easy. “You can get it from a gym, a pharmacy and many other places.”

Lynch doesn’t believe it’s possible to ride cycling’s blue riband event, the Tour de France, clean. The Tour’s drug scandal blew wide open in 1998 with the arrest of trainer Willy Voet in a routine French customs roadblock. Voet was carrying a carload of illegal prescription drugs ranging from amphetamines to EPO and growth hormone. A subsequent trial and Voet’s book revealed drug-taking on a huge, organised scale, with teams and medics in on the act.

“Here’s a simple question. Do you think it’s possible to run the Comrades every day for a week? Well, try that for three weeks.”

He quotes a “good European friend” taking part in the Tour who said he would not even think about taking part without “a little oxygen” (Hemopure or EPO) and “a little help from Jerry” (growth hormone).

And competitors are taking more than just what are commonly regarded as performance enhancers. At the 2002 Track world Cup in Cali Columbia, says Lynch, riders were pigging out on cheap, top-quality cocaine.

Medically speaking
Noted sports medicine academic Tim Noakes, head of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, is under no illusions about what it takes to compete at the highest level.

The simple fact is, he says, “It’s to no-one’s advantage that they don’t dope.”

In any sport that requires endurance, speed, power or strength there will be the temptation to dope, says Noakes. “Specifically sport at the international level.”

Among individual sports, doping was taking place heavily in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. “Americans were probably the most potent dopers.”

In Professor Noakes’s view, organised crime controls recreational and performance enhancing drugs. He cites the case of Marco Pantani, cycling great who died of drug complications. “He was getting his cocaine and EPO from the same dealer.” In this high-stakes game, where doping is worth 0,2 of a second in a 100 m sprint and 5 to 10 seconds in 1 500 m, anything goes.

“Many athletes come to train in South Africa, to places where they won’t get tested. The federations don’t send their testing people. If they test their athletes too well… they don’t win. Federations don’t want positive results. Governments don’t want it.”

Speaking out against doping doesn’t necessarily meet with universal approval.

“I’ll give you an example. In training for the Sydney Olympics, Australian discus thrower Werner Reiterer achieved nearly 70 metres. That would have given him gold at the Games. They were basically already pencilling in his name.

“But he pulled out. You see, he had been doping heavily and he realised he couldn’t live with the deception any longer. He wrote a book about his experiences, , exposing everything rotten in Australian sport.”

Whatever Reiterer might have intended, things did not turn out well for him. “Instead of cleaning it up, they shot the messenger and started investigating .”

Athletes are so far ahead of the game that they are using drugs that are not yet approved for patients, he says. Although to a large extent the same types of drugs are being used that were being used 10 years ago, there is a new breed of substances that act on the brain. Noakes, who believes that performance is driven by the brain more than any other physical aspect, says of these new substances, “This is the ultimate”.

It’s ironic that despite the proven performance-enhancing worth of some drugs, many of what athletes take has dubious value.

“What does make the difference – and it’s perfectly legal and safe – is carboloading before you start. It can improve your performance as much as 10 to 20 per cent in a race like Comrades. That’s a huge difference.”

But why stop at sport? he asks. “We don’t test musicians. We don’t test politicians.”

There is huge pressure in specific sports in South Africa, he warns. “Imagine if you came out of high school weighing 150 kg… but testing is pretty big in South African rugby. The question I’d like to ask is, what is the pressure on Australian rugby, where it’s not even the second-most-popular sport?”

Simply legalising everything will only shift the emphasis, says Noakes.

“If you allow unfettered drug use, and you accept the professional approach to sport, then you know performance has to do with a drug.

“If you make doping legal, then what you will have is that athletes become a group of genetically different people. Not people who are good at sport, but people who genetically react best to doping.”

Noakes holds dear the fair-play ideals of amateur sport, but concedes that he’s a little old-fashioned in his views of sport for sport’s sake; in the belief that after all, it’s only a game.

“In the end, it comes down to how you define sport. If you don’t give a damn… if the focus is the performance… then you will stop at nothing.”

Catching a doper
The World Anti-Doping Agency and its national partners such as the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport conduct year-round testing, in and out of competition, to try to ensure that athletes stay clean.

Individual athletes are tested randomly out of competition, usually twice a year. They are allowed two missed tests – say, through not being where they said they’d be, as required – in 18 months.

On the Tour de France, even the lowliest domestique (support rider) can expect to be tested at least twice. More prominent riders will be tested more often. Every rider is tested before the Tour’s first stage, and during the course of the event the entire field will individually go through the testing procedure. Four riders are tested after each stage: the stage winner, overall leader, and two randomly selected competitors. Testing also takes place at other events and during the off-season.

What makes them run
Some substances that dopers use:

Also known as Benzedrine, Methedrine, speed. Central nervous system stimulant. Widely used by the armed forces in World War 2.

Anabolic steroids.
Hormones related to testosterone. Increase protein synthesis, thereby bulking up muscles. Side-effects include development of male characteristics such as deeper voice (through bigger vocal cords), increase in body hair, acne, high blood pressure, infertility and liver damage. Used therapeutically to treat debilitating conditions (Aids, cancer) and stimulate growth. The potent “designer steroid” tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), known as “the clear”, was until recently undetectable.

Beta blockers.
Steady and slow the heartbeat; used therapeutically after heart attacks and for hypertension. Thought to be helpful for sports requiring steadiness (such as target shooting) and for those with performance anxiety, such as musicians.

Blood doping.
The practice of storing an athlete’s blood for later transfusion in an effort to boost oxygen-carrying capacity.

Steroid hormone. Used therapeutically as an anti-inflammatory.

Erythropoietin (EPO).
Produced naturally by the liver and kidneys; regulates red blood cell production. Therapeutically, used to increase red-cell production in anaemia sufferers, and to treat cancer patients whose immune system has been depressed by chemo- and radiotherapy. Side-effects include thickened blood, leading to the risk of clots and strokes. Its mere presence wasn’t actionable because, like cortisone, it’s indistinguishable from the body’s natural hormone output. Consequently, authorities set a baseline: a “haematocrit” level above 50 per cent resulted in a compulsory rest from competition. After seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong retired, his archived urine samples were reported to have contained EPO, but test procedures were inconclusive.

Blood substitute derived from cows. Intended for treating anaemia. Oxygencarrying ability the same as regular blood, but able to deliver the oxygen more easily.

Masking agents.
Substances that conceal doping use from testers, these are themselves banned.

Bronchial passage dilator; constituent of asthma pumps. Widely used in the Tour’s peloton.

The “male” hormone. The 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis was found to have an abnormally high ratio of synthetic to naturally occurring testosterone – an indicator of doping. Used as an aid to recovery after hard training or competition.

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