NEWS

An anti-drug campaign is launched

War was declared this week. Yet the opening salvo has come not in the Mideast deserts but in wintry Denmark, waged not by military planners but by international sports officials. The strategic aim is to break the debilitating hold of performance-enhancing drugs on international sport; the battle plan revolves around the new Anti-Doping Code (ADC), proposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at its World Conference on Doping that ended in Copenhagen last Wednesday. If Hamlet, that famously angst-torn Danish prince, couldn’t make up his mind, his influence has not extended to this gung-ho effort, launched in his homeland, to fight a genuine scourge. This new war has all the ingredients of a classic battle, involving the marshaling of would-be virtuous forces, good guys versus bad guys, promises of benefits to those who go along and severe sanctions against those who won’t. And, like the war on terrorism, it involves an enemy which is clearly known yet remains maddeningly elusive, devious, and sometimes ingenious. And it’s a battle which must be fought yet may never be fully won – and could hurt some innocent people along the way. Olympics founder Baron de Coubertin considered Olympism a «state of mind,» but it’s doubtful he was thinking of performance-enhancing drugs. Drug use is a symptom of a deeper disease, yet its proliferation in sport is also, paradoxically, an indication of how huge international sport has become. Relentless pressure on athletes to succeed during short careers in the limelight creates ideal conditions for using illicit drugs to get an edge on rivals and, clearly, a Nancy Reagan-style «just say no» campaign won’t suffice. Drugs ultimately threaten to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs – apart, of course, from risking athletes’ lives and health. WADA’s president, Dick Pound, said to delegates that this is «a fight that, in the interests of sport and the youth of the world, we simply must win.» And Athens, where the Olympics will be staged in 2004 and which will boast a state-of-the-art drug-testing facility, is shaping up as the first key battleground. It is a herculean task to create a single new set of ground rules with both flexibility and bite. The 53-page code represents the first-ever attempt at harmonizing rules against the use of performance-enhancing drugs across sports disciplines and national lines. It proposes a single list of prohibited substances (including anabolic steroids, hormone stimulants, diuretics, erythropoietin (EPO) and even genetic doping) – and involves new blood tests as well as traditional urine-based ones, including out-of-competition testing at any time. It imposes a mandatory two-year ban on athletes found guilty, and is supposed to apply to all sports, even non-Olympic ones. Naturally, not everyone is happy: Two key federations, for cycling and soccer (FIFA), both Olympic sports, consider the flat two-year ban inflexible and excessive, while in another example of American exceptionalism, US professional sports leagues – not under governmental or international sporting jurisdiction – are exempt from the rules (except for individuals, like basketball players, who hope to be Olympians). IOC, unlikely battler The fight against drugs is emerging as Jacques Rogge’s first big enterprise as International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, and represents a golden opportunity for the IOC itself to regain some of the moral high ground it long claimed but saw washed away in the corruption scandals of the late 1990s. The main impetus for creating WADA in 1999 was the 1998 Tour de France cycling race, which was decimated by discoveries of massive cheating by entire teams and sparked fears for the future of the sport itself. Drugs afflict the Olympics too, of course. They could be considered the fourth major bane in the Games’ modern incarnation. For decades, defending «amateur» principles was the foremost concern, then, warding off political intrusions and boycotts became paramount. Still later, commercialism became, for many, its worst affliction until it became the Games’ accepted lifeblood. Drugs, increasingly including genetic engineering, are emerging as their main 21st century credibility issue, and is a difficult nut to crack because it involves individual use – some of it inadvertent – as much as organized deception. WADA and the IOC want all sports federations aboard by the Athens Games of summer 2004, and governments to have a plan of implementation by the Turin Winter Games in 2006. Yet between the cops-and-robbers nature of the game, the benign neglect from sports organizations sheltering their own, and the next generation of genetic engineering that could transform the problem in coming years, some argue that the effort is still too little, too late. The problem didn’t start yesterday. Drug use exploded onto the world scene at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and world record after testing positive. That case also illustrated the great public relations problem of fighting drugs; the Johnson case is considered a blight on the otherwise well-organized Seoul Games – even though it represented a success for the drug-testing program itself. Drug (and sex) testing began some 20 years before that, at the 1968 Mexico City Games. And drug use was prevalent long before it was recognized as a threat. As early as the 1904 Games, American marathoner Thomas Hicks, flagging mid-race, was given a dose of strychnine sulphate dissolved in egg white by his coach, which helped the hallucinating runner stagger to the finish line. He was feted as a victor rather than disqualified. How times change. WADA problem If drug use is widespread, public suspicions of it have become virtually pandemic. A now-infamous poll of athletes at the 1996 Atlanta Games showed that 52 percent would willingly accept the risk of death if it meant staying on top of their sports for five years. This seems to cross the line from dedication to mere foolhardiness, but it says volumes about the pressures involved in the Olympics. What is worse is that all world-class athletes (and their organizations) fall under a generalized cloud of dubiety and suspicion. Even the «clean» ones operate in fear of invasive testing or being caught for taking cold medicines or food supplements whose ingredients aren’t always labeled properly. Furthermore, it is the most successful ones that get fingers pointed at them. «How else did they get ahead?» is the natural question. Cases like Michelle Smith (an Irish swimmer) and Florence Griffith-Joyner (an American runner) who rose from also-ran status to win four medals at Atlanta and Seoul respectively, but then quickly retired, will always leave questions open. Entire teams have been caught out; East Germany’s Plan 14.25, involving massive state-sponsored doping in the 1970s and 1980s, has rendered Olympic medals tables suspect. Even the supposedly cleanest countries haven’t been immune; witness Finland’s cross-country ski team a few years back. Top-class athletes sometimes seek dubious advice, illustrating either naivete or recklessness in the pursuit of glory. Four-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong has been dogged endlessly about drugs, despite his denials and the absence of incriminating evidence, but he didn’t help his case by consulting a doctor known for prescribing banned substances to others. Recently Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, the «world’s fastest couple,» have admitted consulting Ben Johnson’s former coach, Charlie Francis, under a lifetime ban in Canada. Drugs were off the agenda, they said, but it again raised questions. (And Jones’s former husband, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, tested positive for nandrolone, a steroid.) Guilt isn’t proven by association, but such associations don’t make it any easier to believe their innocence. A game of catch (up) With new drugs and methods always coming on the market, WADA is endlessly playing catch-up. The IOC is compensating aggressively, threatening to ban from the Games any sports organizations that won’t comply, and to prohibit countries who demur from holding future Games. This could lead to clashes, as between the IOC and FIFA, or even between the IOC and China, 2008 Games host, whose swimmers logged numerous world records under a heavy drugs cloud in the 1990s. And cycling’s ruling body is headed by Hein Verbruggen, who strongly opposes the two-year ban and who, awkwardly, also heads the IOC’s Coordination Commission for the Beijing Games. Clashing interests are everywhere, it seems. Dr Rogge said no one should «underestimate the gravity of the task at hand,» while Pound admonished delegates to «go to work – let us make history.» Others are frankly dubious; sports scientist Charles Yesalis noted ominously that what’s happening may be akin to «rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.» Clearly, WADA’s claim to have tested over 2,000 athletes before the Sydney Games, and coming up with 23 positive tests – just 1 percent of the total – will arouse many doubts about capability, for all its good intentions. The 2004 Athens Games will indeed be a test of cleanliness – but not just of the city’s famous air pollution.