Doped To Perfection

FROM THE bleachers it may look like pure glory. But from the athlete's perspective, qualifying for the Olympic Games resembles nothing so much as a prison drug raid. ""It's tremendously embarrassing,'' says U.S. national-team oarsman Ty Bennion. ""You've just given the performance of your life. Your family and friends think you're going off to sign some sort of official documents. But you're headed off to the bathroom so that two International Sampling Officers can watch you pee into a cup.''

Drug use is nothing new in Olympic sports; Soviet weight lifters discovered the benefits of steroid hormones back in the 1950s, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been trying since the late '60s to enforce bans on various chemical aids. In recent years, most sports federations have instituted year-round spot-testing programs in an effort to keep competitors clean. Yet with every advance in pharmacology, the opportunities for cheating grow richer. The chemical arsenal now includes everything from steroids and stimulants to genetically engineered growth hormone. No one knows just how many athletes use banned substances, but experts use words like ""epidemic'' to describe the problem. Says Olympics chronicler Gary Allison: ""Drugs are the single biggest threat to the Games.''

Olympic officials insist they're getting better at catching cheaters. For the Atlanta Games, the IOC has set up a $3 million-plus testing program, complete with a staff of 400 and the most sensitive mass spectrometer ever used in competition. Unfortunately, the technology always lags a lap behind. ""Drug testing is a joke,'' says one steroid-dealing coach who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ""The people who are smart and have the money to pay for drugs can easily pass.''

Indeed, getting around the rules has become an official government mission in some countries. Under East Germany's notorious State Plan 14.25, more than 1,000 scientists, trainers and physicians spent much of the 1980s developing better ways to drug the nation's athletes. Most Olympians suspect that China has since followed suit. In 1992 and 1994, Chinese athletes came out of nowhere to shatter world records in several sports and capture more than a dozen gold medals. Then international sports officials sprang unscheduled urine tests on the national team and found that 11 stars -- including swimming medalist Lu Bin -- were on steroids. The International Federation of Swimming couldn't prove that the government was involved, but suspicions still abound.

Olympic rules bar a half-dozen classes of drugs, but the greatest menaces are the testosterone-based anabolic steroids. Just as a natural rise in testosterone turns scrawny boys into burly men, steroids administered by pill, patch, needle or salve can dramatically increase an athlete's bone and muscle mass while reducing fat stores and boosting the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity. Steroids are used in medicine to treat everything from anemia and osteoporosis to AIDS-related wasting. And as every athlete knows, their ""anabolic,'' or tissue-building, effects can yield dramatic gains. After years of steroid-enhanced training, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson ran 100 meters in a record-breaking 9.79 seconds at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Since getting caught and swearing off drugs, he has yet to clock in under 10 seconds.

Steroid abuse can be hard to conceal, for testosterone does more than strengthen the body. Female users often develop tough skin, deep voices and beards. A man taking high doses may find his breasts swelling and his testicles shriveling as the overload tricks his body into stopping production of sex hormones. And any user risks male pattern baldness, a problem that normal testosterone levels can trigger in men. Athletes are quick to spread rumors when they see these signs. But busting someone requires a positive urine test, and those are hard to come by.

Today's tests are highly sensitive to designer steroids such as Anadrol and Dianabol, which differ chemically from anything the body produces on its own. But the tests can't tell synthetic testosterone from the natural kind -- and since people's natural testosterone levels vary widely, high readings alone prove nothing. Testers have tried to get around that problem by looking for abnormal ratios of testosterone to epitestosterone, a related hormone. But savvy cheaters know they can spring that trap by taking the two hormones together. Scientists from the Olympic Lab at UCLA are now joining international efforts to develop a trump card: a test that recognizes synthetic testosterone by the amount of carbon 13 it contains. Every Olympian may face that test four years from now, when the Games move to Sydney. Meanwhile, says Craig Kammerer, a research scientist at Bristol Meyer Squibb, ""one can take a good moderate dose of tes- tosterone and not be found positive.''

Steroids may be hard to police, but the IOC can't even test for human growth hormone (hGH), a natural substance that drugmakers now produce through genetic en- gineering. Secreted by the pituitary, hGH fosters bone growth and muscle development during childhood and adolescence. Used as a drug, it can combat dwarfism in children. It may help enlarge some adult muscles (along with the heart, liver and kidneys), but it isn't known to improve athletic performance -- and a year's supply costs a staggering $20,000. Even so, experts say the black market is booming. ""When we've gone in and busted people for anabolic steroids, we have also found hGH,'' says one federal drug-enforcement official. Why would anyone take something that is dangerous, illegal and possibly useless? ""Because the competition is so high,'' says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a fellow in sports medicine at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. ""People are looking for any kind of edge.'' Though no one will be tested or disqualified for hGH in Atlanta, several European countries have launched a ""GH-2000'' initiative aimed at developing a test in time for the Sydney Games.

To reap any reward from testosterone or growth hormone, an athlete has to use it regularly, but a new drug called ""epo'' can serve up a quick blast of superhuman energy just when it's most needed. Cyclists and runners have long known they can get an edge by storing their own blood and injecting it just before a race. By placing more red cells in circulation, such ""blood doping'' lets the body carry and burn more oxygen. Epo, a synthetic version of the hormone erythropoetin, produces similar effects by speeding the body's own red-cell production to five or even 10 times the normal rate. Unfortunately, the sudden onslaught of red cells can make the blood so thick that the user's heart stops in the heat of competition. Researchers suspect epo has killed at least 18 Dutch and Belgian cyclists since 1987, but Olympic officials have yet to start testing athletes for it. Mass screening would be costly and impractical, since it involves draw- ing blood. And because epo breaks down within hours, testing wouldn't catch many cheaters anyway. For now, at least, death is the only penalty abusers have to fret about.

These are but a few of the temptations athletes now face. New tests may someday render today's drugs obsolete. But as that happens, the pharmacological arms race will only escalate. ""What bothers me most,'' says Charles Yesalis, an epidemiologist at Penn State University and author of a book on steroids, ""is that it degrades sports into a biochemical challenge.'' The challenge is to keep the playing field level as pharmacology advances. Foolproof year-round drug testing might solve the whole problem, but that's a distant hope. And until it's realized, the incentive to cheat will remain as strong as a steroid-inflated bicep.