Starr: Slowly, Sports Are Dealing With Doping

NASCAR came appallingly late to the drug-testing game. Still, you've got to be impressed by the blunt fashion with which it handled its first major doping scandal. When driver-owner Jeremy Mayfield suggested that his positive drug test must have resulted from an unfortunate mixture of prescription and over-the-counter medicines, the man who runs NASCAR's testing program immediately debunked that excuse as nonsense. Though David Black, head of Aegis Labs, refrained from naming the drug involved, he told USA Today that it was "a clear violation" of policy and that in his experience no such result had ever stemmed from a mixture of meds as Mayfield was suggesting.

That's so much better than baseball's method of dealing with the kind of half-truths offered last week on behalf of Manny Ramirez in the wake of his failed drug test. The league relied on leaks to inform the public that Ramirez had tested positive for human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, which can be used to restart the testosterone cycle after a steroids regimen.

The tennis establishment saw no need to orchestrate either a public pronouncement or a private leak after Frenchman Richard Gasquet was suspended—he'll miss the French Open—for testing positive for cocaine. Gasquet proclaimed his innocence and his intention to prove it. But he'll need to come up with a slightly better defense than the one ginned up for him by Russia's Marat Safin, who said, "When you're at a huge table full of people having fun, it's absurd to have to watch what glass you're drinking from."

This spate of drug news and excuse came on the heels of a new book by Sports Illustrated writer Selena Roberts that makes a mockery of Alex Rodriguez's earnest defense—I was young and immature and my cousin made me do it—after the revelation of his positive test for steroids in 2003. And another new book—American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America's Pastime—by a quartet of New York Daily News reporters has forced Roger Clemens to reemerge from his public hiatus and once again trot out what is an increasingly ineffectual defense: deny, deny, deny.

All this—and the Tour de France is little more than a month away.

Before any of us get too giddy, understand that these are but small victories—albeit involving some big names—in what has been a long, losing battle against epidemic use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes. Still, while the anti-drug forces may not have gained the upper hand, they have at least thrown a scare into the cheaters. And it could amount to far more than that if only the obstructionists would mimic the increasingly aggressive Olympic approach.

The biggest news in the crusade against performance-enhancing drugs slipped under the radar in the United States, perhaps because—for a welcome change—no American athletes were involved. But a few weeks ago the International Olympic Committee announced that six additional Olympians from last summer's Beijing Games had been caught in a blood-doping scandal. The athletes—from track, cycling and weightlifting—included two medalists, most notably Bahrain national hero Rashid Ramzi, who had won the country's first-ever track Olympic gold medal in the showcase 1,500 meters.

The six were among nearly 1,000 athletes whose samples from Beijing were retested earlier this year. That retesting was mandated following the development of a new test that can detect an advanced and, reportedly, widely used form of EPO called CERA. EPO increases endurance in athletes by stimulating the production of red blood cells. The advantage of CERA was that remains in the system longer, meaning it doesn't have to be taken as frequently. But with the development of this new test, that advantage may come with a huge downside. IOC doping protocol makes it standard procedure for samples to be frozen so that they can be retested as developments in detection occur. The World Anti-Doping Agency code permits results to be accepted up to eight years after the original test was administered.

The positive test for the 1,500-meter champion was another blow for the beleaguered sport of track and field, which has endured a succession of major scandals and had already seen three athletes stripped of medals in Beijing following failed drug tests. Though it may be meager consolation, it could also be viewed as a sport that has learned the lessons from past scandals and is finally moving aggressively against the cheats.

Most sports still face tremendous obstacles—often obstructionism from both management and union leadership—in trying to bolster their testing programs or to make them more proactive. Storing test samples can be costly and is potentially controversial. But right now it is a singularly scary weapon for the anti-drug forces. I suspect we would see instant ripples in baseball if it were agreed that samples could be retested for human growth hormone once a reliable urine test for HGH is finally developed.

Baseball and other sports may not have quite the power that the IOC does, the ability to strip an athlete of medals. It would be impossible to recalculate team standings retroactively and, as we've seen, difficult even to remove names from the record books. Still, in recent years we have witnessed what a powerful weapon shame can be. It must be a huge shock for athletes who expected to live out their lives in remembered glory only to discover that they are pariahs rather than heroes.

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