NEWS

A bothersome bane that’s been brought on themselves by miscreants

Because of the ethical and medical issues involved, drug testing is a chronic presence in the world of high-performance athletics. Jones’s claim of over 160 clean tests rings hollow in light of the new (and accidental) discovery of THG, yet the sheer number stands out. Nowadays athletes are liable to be tested at any time, without warning. Previously, prior warning of a test could enable masking agents to cover up illicit drugs or – in the case of Michelle Smith, an Irish swimmer and triple gold-medalist at Sydney – could lead to tampering of urine samples while in transit. Theoretically, this is no longer possible. Athletes are expected to register their whereabouts with their national authorities at all times so cooperating agencies can test even out of competition; yet many countries do not even have national testing programs. In big competitions, however, athletic testing has become so draconian that «policing» aptly describes the process. A so-called «chain of custody» controls the athlete’s exact whereabouts at all times as soon as an event is over. A drugs official chaperones him or her off the floor or track, and he must report to doping control within one hour of the race or event. Allowing for interviews and press conferences – and availability of urine (and the ability to get it out while literally being watched by a chaperone right in the toilet stall) – actual tests can take longer. Athletes themselves pour the urine into the vials and seal them so as to minimize tampering, and names are left off samples to avoid favoritism (or the opposite) in the lab. Blood as well as urine tests are becoming more commonplace, for things like EPO; in the case of Athens, lack of planning means that all blood tests will be in the Olympic Village, a major complication for athletes (rowers, US basketballers) planning to stay elsewhere. Catch as catch can The object is to minimize cheating, to catch those who do cheat, and to instill an ethos that it’s far better not to try. Yet the system is imperfect. The policers are by definition a step behind the scientists. Deterrence drives new drug use underground and to experimental substances that could cause long-term harm. Implementation of principles is still uneven. The chaperoning system is open to collusive practices or bribery. Though the Olympics is a wide and supposedly egalitarian net, some of its sports are deeply suspected while others are out of the spotlight. Wide swings between liberality and crackdown create uncertainty throughout the system. Some nations, like Australia, are open if imperfect with their efforts; others remain lax, with opaque procedures and no «athlete whereabout» policy as yet, suggesting some still looking the other way in the wider effort to win a bit of national pride through its top athletes. Where does Greece stand? Hosting a Games doubles the pressure to perform, while the country’s great performance at the Euro 2004 football championships has raised the performance bar further for its other athletes this summer. The country has faced accusations, including in the British press, over no-shows in major competitions (like Costas Kenteris’s scratching at last summer’s world championships). Its athletes will be facing an internationally supervised drugs testing program in which any positive tests (or worse, coverups) would prove devastating and bring infamy to a national effort. It is difficult to know how committed the bureaucracy is to preventing this. Another problem is that its best athletes, like lifters, sprinters and throwers, are in sports especially susceptible to steroid abuse. Satisfying them all If there are cracks, as there are, then the cleverest will slip through them. Yet the system makes life unpleasant and intrusive for all athletes, which cannot be the ultimate aim either, as the Olympics are supposed to celebrate sport, not incriminate it. A new trend, the «squealing rule» where drug cheats get off more lightly by revealing information about others’ usage (as now in US sprinter Kelli White’s case), is full of potential injustice and settling of scores by the aggrieved. Perhaps the pervasive cynicism about top performances is the biggest threat to the credibility of Olympic performances. But as hope springs eternal, perhaps medical fears and legal clampdowns are necessary mid-term hurdles on the track toward a cleaner future.