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World: Doping -- Performance-Enhancing Drugs A Threat To Health And Ethics (Part 1)

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The highly competitive world of sport has fostered a dangerous rise in the use of performance-enhancing substances -- both among professional athletes and ordinary young people looking for a confidence-booster. Antidoping watchdogs say regulations are in place to ensure the Summer Olympic Games in Athens will be drug-free. But experts say efforts must be intensified to fight the influence of doping on both national sport and youth culture. In the first of a three-part series on doping, RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc looks at the rise of performance-enhancing drugs and measures to curb them.

Prague, 24 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Doping is probably as old as sport itself. Athletes in ancient Greece are known to have used fortifying potions to improve their performance. Strychnine, caffeine, cocaine, and even alcohol were used by some sportsmen in the 19th century.

But doping took on wider prominence in the 1950s, with the appearance of synthetic hormones known as anabolic steroids. From there, the use of steroids grew steadily, despite the introduction of widespread drug testing in the 1970s.

The first high-profile doping case was that of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who lost his 1988 Olympic gold medal after testing positive for steroids.

Doping emerged into a full-blown scandal a decade later, when a large cache of banned substances were found during the 1998 Tour de France cyling race. That incident led to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee.

At the same time, scientific advances have made the emerging varieties of so-called "designer steroids" and other performance-enhancing drugs more difficult to trace in the bloodstream.

Richard Pound is the president of the Montreal-based WADA. He tells RFE/RL that doping has become the biggest threat to modern sport, and that the new designer drugs threaten both the health of the athletes and the nature of sport itself:

"What has happened in recent years that is different from hundreds or thousands of years ago is that there is a degree of science applied to the development of substances that have no therapeutic purpose at all, but are designed purely for performance enhancement, contrary both to the rules and the spirit of sport," he said. "In very recent years, sport has tried to regulate itself to make sure that these things, which are in many cases quite dangerous, are not used, and the rules against doping are very much like the rules of play on the field."

It was only after a trainer anonymously sent a sample of the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) last June that a test for the new generation of drugs could be developed.

Based on that test, Britain's former 100-meters European champion Dwain Chambers was last month banned from competition for two years.

In the United States, Major League Baseball has also instituted its own ban on THG, after several people, including the personal trainer of superstar Barry Bonds, were charged with illegally distributing THG to athletes. An investigation has been launched into BALCO, the California laboratory charged with manufacturing THG.

In Europe, the high-profile case of the British soccer player Rio Ferdinand -- who last September was banned from the sport for refusing to take a drug test -- was yet another reminder of the doping issue.

Sports journalist Paul Kelso, of London's "Guardian" newspaper, says there has been a "rash of doping cases and tales of drugs abuse" across a wide range of sports.

Kelso tells RFE/RL that officials in sports such as football are reluctant to admit to the doping problem, and that the public tends to turn a blind eye to such cases because of the popularity of the sport: "Footballers in England, they take more tests than any other sport, but there's a real reluctance to test top sides. The Premier League teams are not tested as often as lower league teams. When Rio Ferdinand failed to take a drug test -- for which he has been banned -- there was a feeling that this was unfair. In athletics, which is the sport that has the worst reputation for practice in dealing with drugs, no athlete would ever question a ban for failing to take a drug test, whereas in football there was a huge amount of fuss made, the players' union was up in arms. So I think the problems are cultural."

An unusually high number of recent deaths on the football pitch has also prompted calls for better doping controls in the sport.

Hungarian footballer Miklos Feher died in January during a game in Portugal. Two Romanian football players also died on the pitch in 1999 and 2000. Eight elite cyclists have died in the past 13 months, all due to heart-related reasons, some of which are known to have been caused by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Doctor Hans Geyer is deputy director of the Cologne Doping Control Laboratory, Germany's leading anti-doping authority. He tells RFE/RL that anabolic steroids, which resemble the male sex hormone testosterone, can have multiple side effects -- some of them life-threatening: "For example, the virilization effect, that means that female athletes undergo a deepening of the voice and a growth of beard. Interruption of the growth process of young people, that's a very severe side effect. Then other severe side effects are psychic side effects -- steroids lead to an increase in aggressiveness. And another side effect is the growth of the heart muscle without a growth of the capillary system, which provides oxygen support for the heart muscle. It is a cause for heart attacks [and] arteriosclerosis."

Geyer also says that some orally administered steroids can cause liver damage and even cancer because they cannot be metabolized fast enough.

Geyer, whose laboratory is one of those accredited by the WADA to perform antidoping tests, says more out-of-competition doping controls must be performed at the national level.

He tells RFE/RL that former Eastern bloc countries are well behind the rest of the world when it comes to testing their athletes: "I think two-thirds of all laboratories and two-thirds of all [drug-testing] activities are in [Western] European countries. Whereas, for example, in Asian countries or in South America, or in Eastern Europe there are only a few antidoping activities. So we have to improve the worldwide fight against doping and we have to improve doping controls, out-of-competition controls. For example, in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, and so on, they have very good athletes, but there are only a few doping controls. Also, in the United States, or South America or in Asia."

WADA President Richard Pound says a big achievement in the fight against doping is the World Anti-Doping Code that came into force in January.

He says the 103 governments who have already signed the code will have to accept WADA's 2004 list of prohibited substances. Pound says the code will be enforced at the 2004 Olympics in Athens: "Even though [all] the governments will not have completed their adoption of the code by the time of the games in Athens, the Olympic movement will. That's going to be a condition of participating in the Olympics, so the games in Athens will be the first time that the World Anti-Doping Code will be applied by everybody at the Olympics."

Pound says that governments are now in the process of developing a United Nations convention to adopt the World Anti-Doping Code. They hope to have the convention in place in time for the Winter Olympic Games in 2006.

Sports journalist Paul Kelso says that the emphasis on performance -- which is driven by financial and marketing pressures -- has largely sidelined the notion of fair competition that sport is supposed to promote.

But he says he is optimistic that at this year's Summer Games, the Olympic ideas of Citius, Altius, Fortius -- faster, higher, stronger -- will not be marred by any doping scandal: "I do think that there's perhaps a little less money and a little less pressure [when it comes to the Olympics]. The sort of ethics that you're talking about are more prominent. And I think when the Olympics come around in August -- any Olympic medal is rightly seen as a huge achievement by all the competitors and anyone who knows anything about sport -- I think, with any luck, the Olympics will not be overshadowed by drugs stories and will instead remind us, remind people, what sport is supposed to be about."

(Part 2 of this series will look at steroids and youth drug culture; Part 3 will be an explanatory guide to performance-enhancing drugs)
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