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Doping gets a little tougher for Olympians

Winter Games have a clean image, but slightly improved testing may change that.

By SHARON GINN
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002


Few people are snow-blind enough to presume that Winter Olympic athletes are as pure as the driven ... well, you know.

But unlike the Summer Games, which are regularly peppered with doping scandals big and small, the Winter Olympics historically have been quiet on that front. These Games tend to have their own quirks: say, Nancy and Tonya in 1994. Or the U.S. hockey team trashing a hotel room in 1998.

Even the Nagano Olympics' one high-profile positive drug test had a different spin. Canadian snowboarding gold medalist Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana, news that was by and large met with mild amusement. Rebagliati, who contended he was exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke at a party, got his gold medal back by the end of the Games, successfully arguing in an appeal that marijuana wasn't on the banned list. (It since has been added.)

There have been only five confirmed positive tests for banned substances in Winter Olympics history, none in the past three Games.

But behind the scenes, those in charge of testing for performance-enhancing and other drugs say doping is a problem in any sport. The difficulty has been in catching those who do it.

But the technology, officials say, is improving, and Olympic committees -- notably the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee -- are backing up tough talk with stricter policies and fewer loopholes. If those in charge of monitoring the athletes haven't deterred dopers by warnings and surprise out-of-competition testing, some say there is a better chance those athletes will be caught during these Olympics.

But there are no guarantees.

"Everybody is trying harder now," said UCLA professor Don Catlin, who runs the Salt Lake Games testing laboratory and has been involved in drug testing in every Olympics since 1984.

"In the old days I couldn't say that. I couldn't say that all the sports and athletic associations were solidly behind the movement. There are holdouts today. But by and large, sport is acknowledging there's a problem."

How big a problem?

Some say doping is pervasive in many sports; others say the abuses are overblown.

There's no question that athletes can -- and do, despite many warnings -- test positive for a banned substance simply by taking a sports supplement that weight-training enthusiasts can buy over the counter. But much of the testing efforts are focused on exposing serious cheaters.

In Salt Lake City the doping buzzwords are EPO, which stands for erythropoietin, and human growth hormone.

EPO improves endurance by stimulating the production of red-blood cells, which carry oxygen through the body. It is believed to be used in many winter sports. Human growth hormone is used by some athletes to build muscle, but may be less common in winter sports.

In Salt Lake City the athletes using these doping methods could get away with it.

The IOC had hoped to have a reliable test in place for human growth hormone for these Olympics but doesn't, and the efficacy of the EPO test is up for debate. The first Olympics with EPO testing was Sydney in 2000, and no one was caught. But the test could not determine EPO use if the athlete had stopped taking it more than three days before. According to the IOC, the EPO blood test used in Salt Lake City has a window of about five days. It will be administered to all athletes in endurance sports.

"The benefits (of EPO) start to drop really very fast, but I'd have to say there could still be some" benefits several days after usage, Catlin said. "That's part of the reason why the test needs a lot more development. It's the best anybody can do today."

At the moment, then, much of the emphasis is placed on deterrence achieved through out-of-competition testing.

"The goal is to get the system of deterrence to the point where anyone who would choose to cheat is wrapped up in and concerned with getting caught," said Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist and chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the independent testing agency for U.S. Olympic sports.

"That's the ultimate goal. It gives the mental advantage back to the clean athlete, which has been lost. Not only are we trying to level the playing field, but I view it as we're trying to assist the athlete who is remaining clean."

Shorter predicts that some, but not all, dopers will be caught in Salt Lake City. Once they are, new procedures exist that officials say ensure positive tests cannot go unreported by the IOC.

Catlin's lab will provide results not just to the IOC but to the independent World Anti-Doping Agency, an IOC watchdog. U.S. results will be provided to Shorter's agency, the American equivalent of WADA.

Catlin says it's not the agencies that matter. After all, he said, how "independent" can the world and U.S. anti-doping agencies be having received funding from the IOC and U.S. Olympic Committee, respectively? (The USADA also has received funding from the U.S. government.)

Catlin points out that the World Anti-Doping Agency is run by Dick Pound, also an IOC member: "It's IOC people watching over IOC people. "It's all a PR stunt, I think," he said. "There's only so many people involved in doping control worldwide.

"What's different is a couple of years ago the sport organizations finally decided to be serious about it and not just to pay lip service. What's really important is the mind-set of powerful people in sport has changed from "cover it up' to "get it out in the open.' And that's very helpful."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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