The Real Scandal

The greatest threat to international sport isn't payoffs in Salt Lake. It's "doping,' the use of dangerous performance-enhancing drugs. Do officials turn a blind eye?

IT STARTED TO GO WRONG FOR FRENCH cyclist Erwan Mentheour between Paris and Nice, when race officials tapped him for random drug testing. Just before the 1997 competition, he had taken erythropoietin (EPO), an anemia drug that increases the number of red cells in the blood and thus an athlete's endurance. MenthEour's trainer and doctor swung into action, desperately trying to thin out his blood before he gave a blood sample. They started an IV drip of chilled glucose. They bled him. But still he tested positive. He was thrown off the racing circuit--but not for long. He claimed that his red count seemed high not because he'd taken EPO but because he had had diarrhea and was dehydrated. MenthEour was back on his wheels in two weeks. In fact, his excuses were all a sham: for almost as long as he'd been racing, MenthEour tells NEWSWEEK, he had been taking drugs (""doping'') to improve his performance. ""For two years I took EPO, growth hormone, anabolic steroids, testosterone, amphetamine,'' he says. ""Just about everything. That was part of the job.''

The drumbeat of scandal has filled newscasts and sports pages all year, with revelation after revelation about the Salt Lake City Olympics organizing committee spreading around money and other favors to win the 2002 Games. But a little graft in Utah pales beside what a growing number of coaches, trainers, officials and athletes call the real scandal in sports. The greatest threat to the image, integrity and even the continued existence of elite-level international competitions from the World Cup to the Tour de France to the Olympic Games themselves is the use of illicit performance-enhancing drugs. ""Doping'' among world-class competitors is rampant, admit many athletes, and the governing bodies of individual sports, as well as the International Olympic Committee, turn a blind eye. ""The IOC,'' charges epidemiologist Charles Yesalis of Pennsylvania State University, an expert on Olympic doping, ""has known about the drug epidemic in sport for the last 40 years and has covered it up. There is no difference between the bribery scandal and the drug epidemic in the Olympics. They are intertwined.''

Only the most naive sports fan can still be shocked--shocked!--that drugs and athletes go together like socks and sweat. The pressure to win is crushing, the millisecond difference between gold and silver can amount to millions in endorsement contracts and appearance fees and the banning of doping agents in some sports but not others introduces a moral loophole that a trainer can drive a relay team through. Small wonder, then, that one athlete after another is getting nailed for doping. But even more seem to be getting away with it. In part, that reflects the ever more sophisticated ruses trainers and coaches use to elude the IOC's drug-testing system, which has been part of the Games since 1968.

But new evidence emerging in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal suggests that the IOC and some sport federations, far from being the stalwart defenders of the purity of athleticism, are soft on drugs. Critics contend that the IOC, for instance, has sometimes discarded positive results, fearing they would tarnish the image of the Games. And the IOC continues to use ineffective testing methods that athletes can outwit and challenge. Last week, at the IOC's World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, this dirty little secret exploded into public view. There, representatives of federations that run such sports as cycling, soccer and track and field failed to reach agreement on a mandatory two-year ban for doping: sports organizations led by soccer and cycling vetoed that as too draconian. Delegates couldn't even agree on how to establish an international anti-doping agency, which was the ostensible purpose of the conference, in large part because European and American sports officials balked at letting the IOC run it. Afterward, Canadian swimmer Mark Tewksbury--three-time Olympic medalist, member of the Canadian Olympic Association and of international swimming's athlete commission--resigned his Olympics posts in protest over ""the inability of the IOC to seriously clean its own house.'' He told NEWSWEEK, ""If there's bribery in [selecting] Olympic cities, there's bribery in drug testing.''

The IOC flat-out denies that. Since 1967, the IOC's medical code has prohibited doping, which it defines as the use of ""substances belonging to prohibited classes of pharmacological agents and/or the use of prohibited methods.'' Since the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, the IOC has been routinely testing competitors for these agents. An athlete caught doping faces the loss of medals and a suspension from competition. Prince Alexandre de Merode, who has headed the IOC's Medical Commission for all of its 31 years, is unrepentant in the face of criticism of the IOC. ""We are not speaking of the past,'' he said last week. ""We have to speak of the future . . . This [conference] is the first time that I hear everybody saying doping is an important problem.'' He called his critics' charges ""coldly insulting.''

If doping is, as de Merode noticed, suddenly ""an important problem,'' it is partly because the newest doping agents pose the risk of serious health problems, and even death. But the larger reason is that it is ridiculously easy to dope and not get caught. Doping and detection are like an arms race. First, trainers discover a performance-enhancing drug. Then, sports officials develop a test for it. Trainers retaliate by inventing a way to elude the detectors. So far, doping has stayed a lap ahead. ""Undetectable drugs are 90 percent of estimated doping cases,'' says Hein Verbruggen, head of international cycling.

Czech tennis pro Petr Korda tested positive for the steroid nandrolone after the Wimbledon quarterfinals last May, for instance. (Protesting that he did not know how the chemicals got into his system, he avoided the one-year suspension the International Tennis Association is supposed to impose.) But American pro Jim Courier charged that steroids are far from the worst abuse in tennis. ""EPO is the problem,'' Courier told NEWSWEEK. ""I have pretty strong suspicions that guys are using it on the tour. I see guys who are out there week in and week out without taking rests. EPO can help you when it's the fifth set and you've been playing for four-and-a-half hours.'' Although the endurance-building effects of EPO last for about two weeks, its use can't be detected in urine at all or in blood for more than a day or so after the athlete stops taking it.

EPO is only one weapon in a pharmaceutical arsenal of performance-enhancing substances flowing through sports. Stimulants like amphetamines, ephedrine and caffeine were the first substances to land on the IOC's list of banned agents, and they're still popular. They provide a quick pop of energy, and so are a favorite of sprinters, cyclists and swimmers. They are an ingredient of many asthma medications. Exercise-induced asthma has inexplicably stricken many Olympians, including 60 percent of the U.S. team in 1994, and medical use of stimulant inhalants is allowed. Are stimulants detectable? Sure, if your trainer's IQ matches his hat size. They clear the urine in hours, so all an athlete has to do is not take them too close to her event. If you've been using too soon before your race, there are always ""masking agents.'' Probenecid, for one, inhibits substances from reaching the urine. And urine tests are all the IOC requires: blood tests, which can detect more substances, are deemed too invasive.

Anabolic steroids, almost all of them derivatives of the hormone testosterone, are the mothers of all doping agents. They build muscles. By most estimates, an athlete can improve strength at least 5 percent by taking steroids either orally or through injection during high-intensity training. Drug-detection machines, such as the high-resolution mass spectrometer used at the Atlanta Games in 1996, can be tuned to detect any synthetic steroid; the Atlanta lab tested for 100 different types. But the Dr. Feelgoods of sport can tinker with the molecular structure of common steroids, so they slip through. ""There are 72 banned steroids,'' says one American coach who says he developed drug regimes for athletes in Atlanta, ""but the testosterone molecule is changeable in millions of ways. All you have to do is make a steroid not on the list.'' Or, simply by going cold turkey a few weeks before competition, an athlete can get the muscle-bulking effects without getting caught. If that seems too chancy, athletes can use a diuretic. These drugs, which are also banned, dilute the urine. That makes illicit substances virtually undetectable.

More and more athletes are turning to the source of all steroids: testosterone itself. Natural levels vary, so sports federations and the IOC try to detect doping indirectly. They measure the relative amounts of testosterone and another natural steroid called epitestosterone. In most people, testosterone levels are no more than twice epi levels. But to allow for individual variation, the IOC set the prohibited level at anything over 6 to 1. That means an athlete can dope himself up to, say, five times his normal testosterone levels, and get away with it. How much of an edge would that provide? A male athlete with a typical testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of 1.3 to 1 could boost that to 6 to 1, stay within the IOC limit and improve his performance at least 10 percent. Women, with a natural ratio of 2.5 to 1, could do even better, since they have less testosterone to begin with and so are more sensitive to added amounts. Testosterone can give women beards, deep voices and tough skin. It can make men's breasts swell and testicles shrivel.

The doping agents of choice today are substances that cannot be detected in urine: EPO and human growth hormone. Even though the performance-enhancing effects of hGH are unproved, many athletes believe it boosts energy. (Athletes dubbed the Atlanta Olympics ""The Growth Hormone Games.'') hGH can also cause grotesque skeletal deformations by stimulating abnormal bone growth. EPO, by increasing the production of red blood cells up to tenfold, can turn blood the consistency of yogurt, making it too thick to flow freely. The misuse of EPO has apparently killed at least 18 Dutch and Belgian cyclists since 1987.

A handful of other drugs have lower profiles but are popular among athletes looking for any edge. Plain old sodium bicarbonate postpones lactic-acid buildup, for instance, preventing muscle fatigue. Done two or three hours before a race, ""soda loading'' is especially popular among 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter runners, even though it's banned. Beta blockers, also banned, are cardiac drugs that slow the heart. They are popular among biathletes and archers who need steady hands. Since hands are steadier between beats, the longer the interval, the more time to aim and fire.

Although men do not seem to dope more than women, or vice versa, athletes in some sports dope more than others. ""In some sports, such as cycling, it is not possible to compete if you are not using drugs,'' says Dr. Gabriele Rosa, who advises Kenyan runners. ""The culture of doping is spreading to Nordic skiing and especially runners.'' Yet little is detected. Files collected by the East German secret police document that many of that country's athletes were soaked in anabolic steroids from at least 1969 on. Yet the IOC never once caught a single steroid-popping East German. And in the last decade 27 Chinese swimmers have tested positive, at world meets, for banned substances. The world swimming federation, regarded as tough on drugs, caught them. The IOC didn't.

At the Atlanta Games, several athletes tested positive for Probenecid, the banned masking agent. But the IOC took no action. Only two Olympians tested positive for steroids. But clinical pharmacologist Donald Catlin, who runs a drug-testing lab at UCLA and oversaw the Atlanta testing, said that other positive samples went unreported. ""There were several other steroid positives from around the end of the Games,'' Catlin told a London newspaper. ""I can think of no reason why they [were] not announced.'' Says one member of the USOC drug committee: ""[IOC president Juan Antonio] Samaranch decided the Olympics were over after the last event. There would be no more testing.'' No confirmation tests were ordered for positive samples. De Merode said he chose not to follow up on positives because he did not trust the new $1 million mass spectrometers. Also, he said, the IOC feared that the results would not withstand legal challenge by an athlete, who could accuse the lab of mixing up or doctoring samples, O. J. Simpson-like.

But critics suspect other motives may lead the IOC to tacitly allow drugs. ""So many Olympic records were made with the help of drugs, and people like to see records broken,'' says a former American rower. ""In some sports, like track and weight lifting, it is considered practically impossible to break records "clean'.'' When Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids in Seoul in 1988, he was stripped of his gold medal and the Games suffered a black eye. ""They will never let something like that be made public again,'' says Penn State's Yesalis. ""The Olympics took such a terrible PR hit that superstars could have drugs oozing out of their eyeballs and the IOC still wouldn't call it.'' And the Olympics depend on sponsors. ""It's very simple,'' charges John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association. ""The IOC doesn't want sponsors to be unhappy, and sponsors are unhappy any time their brand name is tarnished. That's why the IOC doesn't want the full extent of doping revealed.''

The depth of suspicions about the IOC became clear at the anti-doping conference in Lausanne last week. The IOC had called the meeting to establish an agency that would determine how and when to test for performance-enhancing drugs, establish penalties and get the international governing bodies of sports such as FINA (swimming) and IAAF (track and field) to agree to the same rules. The IOC also intended to control the new agency. It didn't work out that way. Politicians and sports officials from Europe and the United States demanded that the IOC keep an arm's length away from the agency. Said Danish Sport Minister Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, ""The IOC has proved that they don't have the power or the will to take care of the fight against doping.''

Evidence of its lack of will? Last year the IOC recognized bodybuilding, which is notoriously steroid-soaked, as an official sport. Last July Samaranch called for decreasing the number of drugs on the banned list. Only two days before last week's meeting, de Merode suggested that the IOC reduce penalties against athletes caught using. And in a performance that stunned many delegates, the IOC threw cold water on what may be the most significant breakthrough in drug testing in years: a test for human growth hormone developed by endocrinologist Peter Sonksen of St. Thomas' Hospital in London. It would use blood drawn from the ear lobe or finger. The IOC said the test needed an additional $5 million worth of work.

There are low-tech strategies to detect doping, however. One is to institute frequent, random, out-of-competition testing, as Canada and a handful of other countries have. Anabolic steroids, for instance, ""are training drugs, not something you take the day of the competition,'' notes Bob Armstrong, chief counsel for a landmark Canadian commission that investigated doping in sport. ""At competitions you catch people who are either stupid or careless. You need out-of-competition testing.'' The IOC doesn't mandate that. In addition, sport federations could freeze all urine samples and subject them to each new detection test that comes along. ""If you knew that the undetectable drug you used today might be perfectly detectable a few years from now, and your medals would be taken, and your reputation destroyed, that would make a difference,'' says American runner Frank Shorter, who won gold at Munich in 1972 and silver in Montreal in 1976. ""You would wait for that knock on your door the rest of your life. That's the deterrence.''

Doping has now spread beyond elite sport. ""The reason we are involved in this is the 52 million American children,'' White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey said at the IOC doping conference. That isn't just rhetoric. Since home-run king Mark McGwire admitted to using androstenedione last summer, andro use among kids has soared fivefold, he says. And a study in the journal Pediatrics last year found that 2.7 percent of Massachusetts middle-school athletes were using steroids.

Better drug-detecting strategies and technologies alone won't make sport clean. Athletes themselves have to believe that the IOC and international sport federations will, at least eventually, catch anyone who uses performance-enhancing drugs. They have to believe, in other words, that their competitors aren't getting a free pass. Absent that trust, many athletes will not resist the siren call of swifter, higher, stronger through chemistry. And the luster of the Olympic rings, already so tarnished, will dim even more.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Mark Tewksbury, Swimmer: the gold medalist quit the Canadian Olympic Association over the IOC's drug stance. Above, an IOC conference poster.

PHOTO (COLOR): Ben Johnson, Track & Field: After testing positive for steroids during the '88 Olympics, the Canadian sprinter was stripped of his world records and later banned for life

PHOTO (COLOR): Sergei Ivanov, Cycling: His Dutch TVM team quit the '98 Tour de France after drugs were found in their hotel; the TVM director and doctor were arrested

PHOTO (COLOR): Zhang Yi, Swimming: One of four Chinese swimmers expelled from the 1998 World Championships and suspended for two years after testing positive for a diuretic

ILLUSTRATIONS

GOING FOR THE GOLD: HARD WORK, DEDICATION--AND DRUGS Some Olympic athletes are turning to a new breed of performance-enhancing substances that are invisible to official tests. The first three described below, human growth hormone, erythropoietin and testosterone, have quickly become the most popular of these drugs. But athletes are still getting caught for more traditional violations such as steroids and stimulants:

Blood testing

The IOC doesn't take blood from its athletes. "I don't think it's going to happen," said one doctor.

Pros: Drug concentrations are higher in blood, so drugs are easier to detect.

Cons: It's invasive and samples must be refrigerated. Also, there are religious issues.

Urine testing

This is the method that the Olympic committee uses to screen its athletes.

Pros: Urine can be easily frozen and there aren't religious objections, as with blood.

Cons: Urine samples aren't as concentrated, which makes doping easier to hide.

DRUG: Human growth hormone (hGH)

WHAT DOES IT DO? Stimulates the intra-cellular breakdown of body fat, allowing more to be used for energy.

MASKING/DETECTION: This is a natural hormone, so added amounts don't show up in blood or urine tests.

RISKS: Muscle and bone disfigurement--jutting forehead, elongated jaw. Also: heart and metabolic problems.

DRUG: Erythropoietin (EPO)

WHAT DOES IT DO? Increases the number of red blood cells without having to "dope" using one's own blood.

MASKING/DETECTION: It's extremely difficult to detect because the extra blood cells are the athlete's own.

RISKS: Extra cells can make blood the consistency of yogurt. This can lead to a clot, heart attack or stroke.

DRUG: Testosterone

WHAT DOES IT DO? Used to build muscles. It lets the body recover quickly from strenuous exercise.

MASKING/DETECTION: Rules allow up to five times the natural body level, giving athletes latitude.

RISKS: Unnatural levels can cause heart disease, liver cancer and impotence.

DRUG: Steroids/androstenedione

WHAT DOES IT DO? Anabolic steroids are incarnations of testosterone; androstenedione is a precursor molecule.

MASKING/DETECTION: Water-based steroids (most common) are undetectable in urine after several weeks.

RISKS: Synthetic testosterone carries the same risks as naturally occurring testosterone.

DRUG: Stimulants

WHAT DOES IT DO? The first category that the IOC tested for. They delay the symptoms of fatigue.

MASKING/DETECTION: Stimulants such as amphetamines can be detected; diuretics can dilute them in urine.

RISKS: Fatigue is the body saying "stop"--over-riding that message can be dangerous.

DOING WHATEVER IT TAKES? Many are using banned substances, athletes and observers say, but few are busted. Some athletes who've been involved in recent drug-related controversies:

Uta Pippig, Marathon

The three-time Boston Marathon champ was suspended by Germany's track-and-field federation last fall after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. Pippig says birth-control pills caused the high hormone levels.

Michelle Smith, Swimming

She thrilled Ireland and raised questions after soaring from obscurity to win three golds in Atlanta. Last April she was found guilty of tampering with an unannounced drug test and was suspended for four years.

Petr Korda, Tennis

The Czech tested positive for the steroid nandrolone after Wimbledon in May. He claimed he didn't know how it got in his body; citing 'exceptional circumstances,' the International Tennis Foundation didn't suspend him.

Randy Barnes, Track & Field

The 1996 Olympic shot-put champion was banned for life by USA Track and Field last summer for taking androstenedione. Barnes was banned once before, for two years, in 1989 after testing positive for methyltestosterone.

Join the Discussion