Policing it all: a game of cat and mouse

Despite public perceptions that «everybody’s doing it,» a spurt in findings can, like other crime statistics, actually be a sign of progress; that the whistle-blowers are doing their job. The main task since 1999 has fallen to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), created by the IOC as an independent agency to take over for an overburdened IOC. The latter, even with its established medical commission, was thought not up to the growing task. WADA tread softly at first, as a new agency overlapping others’ jurisdictions and run by a capable figure, Canadian lawyer Richard Pound, who was then aiming for the IOC presidency and thus ill-positioned to step on too many toes. This has all changed in the past two years as the outspoken WADA boss has crusaded against individuals and sports seemingly unwilling to police their own. His efforts have been reflected in the newly activist policy of the US Anti-Drug Agency (USADA) under Terry Madden, diligently trying to make up for lost time in the long-permissive climate of US sports, both professional and amateur. Some say it has gone to the other extreme, witch-hunting athletes and reversing decisions. The pendulum swing has come to haunt Jerome Young, a US sprinter, who was exonerated by the US arbitrators in 2000 for taking nandrolone and went on to win a gold medal in a relay team; yet the Swiss-based Court for Arbitration in Sport has just recommended his medal be stripped. This was possible only after US officials decided to cooperate internationally. New body, old problem WADA, now the main international body and independent observer, is charged with setting standards and providing a level playing field. Its anti-doping code, finalized just last year in Copenhagen, sets out principles, lists banned and permitted substances, allows temporary exceptions, provides for stiff penalties (two-year competition bans on first infractions; lifetime bans after that) and distinguishes between universal standards and those that can be interpreted by individual sports. It is run by a 34-person board, half from governments and half from the world of sport. It is a strong if incomplete start. IOC President Jacques Rogge has threatened to ban any sports federations not signing the Code from competing at Athens. Unsurprisingly, the cycling federation was the last to sign, last month. Another problematical case has been FIFA, the world football (soccer) authority which opposes mandatory bans on its popular sport. Governments are being given a little more time before signing up; around 120 (out of 200) have done so. Now there is overlap in the area, with several different agencies capable of calling on athletes without warning to stand for drug tests: WADA supervisory officials, national officials in those (few) countries that have their own National Anti-Doping Organizations (NADOs), and individual sports officials (like track’s IAAF) can all be involved. Athletes training in another country can be tested by officials where they are residing. And at the Olympic Games, but only there, the IOC has authority to police drug testing. At this year’s events, actual testing will be carried out by the Athens organizers (ATHOC) with the IOC in a supervisory role. This year the IOC will also carry out pre-Games testing (from the end of July), possibly confusing the boundary between (laxer) out-of-competition testing and (stricter) in-competition testing. Harmonization of such a new arrangement is underway but incomplete, and even a clampdown can be confusing. Risking for the edge Through the haze of transition, progress has been made. For example, fragmentation has given way to across-the-board standards. Some substances have been dropped from the banned list. Caffeine was once illegal, but obviously problematic (to drink coffee or not?), as it’s more effective in small than big doses; Aussie Alex Watson tested positive for caffeine at Seoul and was banned from the modern pentathlon. Nicotine, curiously, was never barred, while ginseng has been a problem in the past; ephedrin, a widely used cold medication, was also removed. All this makes it easier to police the substances clearly banned (but not, of course, new and undetectable ones). What are the drugs of choice? Traditionally, the focus was on straightforward stimulants, until medical labs and money for sport shifted into higher gear. Anabolic steroids became popular as they promote quicker recovery of exhausted or injured muscles; they also produce the famous bulking-up of athletes (like Canada’s Ben Johnson), and cast suspicions on powerful female athletes suddenly on a testosterone kick. These power-based substances give athletes an edge in sports requiring spurts of energy, like sprinters, boxers and weightlifters. The previously undetected drug THG, which BALCO made infamous and which got British sprint champion Dwain Chambers in big trouble, is an anabolic-based steroid which dissolved quickly. Another type is hormonal-based drugs like EPO which stimulate the creation of oxygen-carrying red-blood cells in the kidneys and help endurance-based athletes (the cause of cyclist Millar’s arrest). These also require more expensive blood tests, not just urine tests. Such drugs carry hidden dangers, for the effect outlasts the event; heart-attack deaths from EPO, via clogging of arteries, have been recorded. Human growth hormone (HGH), also reportedly admitted in the Montgomery case, may well be tested soon – the very threat of a possible Athens test being a useful deterrent – though the substance has been around for quite awhile, with disturbing if circumstantial evidence like changing body shapes. A one-size-fits-all categorization is not possible, for some substances are allowable out of competition but not in competition. Others are useful for single sports, like diuretics for wrestlers trying to qualify in a lower weight class, whereas steroids are useful for others.