Athletics: Drugs hand cheats a short cut to glory

The struggle to eliminate drug-taking from sport is endless. Each generation of competitors uses the experience of its predecessors to find new illegal methods of improving performances. Each generation of administrators and doctors tries to stop every loophole, extend the number of banned drugs and become more sophisticated in its testing and trapping of offenders.

Drugs are also big business. David Jenkins, the 1972 Olympic silver medal winner, yesterday pleaded not guilty to charges in a San Diego court that he was running an anabolic steroid smuggling ring with a Mexican pharmaceutical company, worth millions of dollars.

'Whenever I look how far there is still to go,' says Sir Arthur Gold, the chairman of the Sports Council's Drugs Abuse Advisory Group. 'I look back to the speech I made at the 1968 Olympics advocating the extension of testing and I realize how far we have already come.

'It is a battle for the hearts and minds of men. No one will defend in public the illicit use of drugs. It is dishonest. It is cheating and unhealthy. The person taking drugs is not only a rogue, but a fool. '

Much of the impetus for testing has come from Olympic and traditionally amateur bodies rather than professional organizations, perhaps because the fear of legal action, such as restraint of trade, is greater among professional bodies.

One of the reasons for the embarrassment over testing at the Wimbledon tennis last year and the world snooker championship this year has been the reluctance by administrators - in both cases players' bodies - to recognize the implications of drug testing.

Both sports wanted to test just for certain 'social' drugs, like cocaine, to suppress rumors that might harm the image of the sport (and deter sponsors).

The Association of Tennis Professionals decided that no one would be suspended if found positive and his identity would be kept secret, even if the drugs were illegal. The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association did not recognize the problems of using largely taxpayers' money to analyze a whole range of drugs and then not apply the Code of Conduct of the Sports Council, whose offices it was using to carry out the tests.

Several other professional sports having been lethargic in imposing a testing program. For the first time, players at this year's Open golf championship may be tested for human growth hormone. But this is an isolated case. There are no plans to introduce testing in other tournaments, despite the possibility that drugs could be used to calm the nerves and steady the control of a golfer.

Rugby League, in which players need much the same physical qualities as in American Football, where drug-taking is rife, is to begin testing only next season. David Howes, the Rugby League Press spokesman, told The Times: 'Our medical association has put forward a big package of recommendations on both drug-testing and dressing room hygiene. We do not believe there is drug-taking in Rugby League but, as the Government policy is clear, we feel testing should take place. We now have to sort out how clubs will operate it. '

In horse racing, where the doping of horses has been forbidden since 1903, jockeys will have to undergo drug testing from July 1. Tests will be for non-therapeutic drugs, such as heroin, which could affect a jockey's judgement.

One group of drugs which is not banned is diuretics. These have been used in weight category sports such as boxing, wrestling, judo and weight-lifting and are now banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

But unlike these sports, where competition is comparatively rare, jockeys have to 'make the weight' every day. Joe Mercer, the former jockey, admits he took the drug during his career but says it has not affected his health.

'I only took half a one a week on a Sunday if I had indulged a bit on the Saturday night. The important thing was to take potassium with them,' he says. Mercer does not believe that jockeys now take diuretics and neither does Dr Michael Allen, chief medical officer of the Jockey Club. Saunas are installed at many courses and are increasingly used.

Many competitors in other sports have tried to use diuretics to flush out the kidneys to avoid an accurate analysis. This is now futile. Dr David Cowan, the assistant director of the Drug Control Centre at King's College, London, says: 'Even when the specific gravity of the semen is virtually the same as water, we have found banned substances. If the specific gravity is the same as water, we can still do the test. '

One professional sport which has had widespread testing is cycling, in which drug-taking was commonplace even in the nineteenth century. Some of the greatest cyclists over the last 20 years have been tested positive or have admitted they have taken drugs; they include Jacques Anquetil, five times winner of the Tour de France, Joop Zoetemelk and Sean Kelly. Yet the punishment is ludicrously light. In 1984 Kelly was disqualified from the event in which he was found positive, fined only pounds 420 and given a one-month suspended sentence from the sport for what was admittedly his first offence.

Because of the increasing sophistication of testing, some competitors try original methods of avoiding detection. As Dr Cowan says: 'The best way to beat the system is to give us a false and untainted sample.'

In the 1978 Tour de France, Michel Pollentier, the Belgian race leader, was caught with a rubber pump containing untainted urine hidden beneath his armpit to be used for when he had to provide a sample. In British athletics, a few years ago, there were rumors that the method of testing foreign competitors at invitation meetings was not foolproof.

Instead of taking drugs, many competitors resort to practices ranging from the unethical to the merely intelligent. This includes boping - the withdrawal and reinfusion of blood to increase its oxygen-carrying capacity. It is condemned as unethical but is not on the IOC banned list of drugs because no reliable test has been found.

This may change. A Swedish scientist this month told a medical symposium of the International Amateur Athletic Federation that he now had a foolproof method. The British weightlifting team was also startled a few years ago to find the Bulgarians - with whom it shared a dressing room at the world championships - going on a drip feed after weighing in.

At the other end of the scale is the practice of hundreds of marathon runners of drinking a few very strong cups of coffee. They believe this can accelerate the normal rise in free-fatty acids in the bloodstream; these acids are a major muscle fuel and the theory is that by making more of them available to muscles early in the run the muscles will conserve their stored glycogen.

As long as sportsmen and women struggle for supremacy, they will seek new ways legitimate and illegal, of improving their performances.


AMPHETAMINES: Stimulant drugs which elevate the mood and can sharpen the reflexes of a competitor. Amphetamines, such as benzedrine and dexedrine, can make a competitor more aggressive and influence him to push himself further than is safe.

ANABOLIC STEROIDS: Drugs which help in the retention of nitrogen and the utilization of protein. Widely used since the early 1960s both to increase muscular body weight and to recover more quickly from intensive training.

BETA-BLOCKERS: They inhibit the release of adrenalin. Now banned by the International Olympic Committee because of their misuse in sports like shooting, archery and modern pentathion.

BLOOD DOPING: Also known as blood-packing. A method of increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. A pint of blood is withdrawn from the body of an athlete, who makes up the deficiency. The stored cells are then reinfused into the competitor's body before a major event.

CODEINE: A drug which is a component of many common medicaments, but is banned by the International Olympic Committee. Like morphine it is an opiate and also dulls and individual's capacity to feel pain.

DIURETICS: Drugs which helps urination, and are used in many weight category sports to reduce body weight before a major competition. Will be banned in Olympic sports form 1988.

TESTOSTERONE: A male hormone which has a strong anabolic action. It can be injection into a competitor's body to raise the level of testosterone. Side effects for women include the acquisition of masculine features. 


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