Battling the drugs culture at the Games

The Games next month – yes, they’re almost here – seem in a state of pre-action lull. One indication is the public projects along the Faliron waterfront, where the impressive, looping overpasses of the new Kifissos road link remain strangely silent, as do the new tram’s plastic-encased ticket booths and ready-but-empty platforms. The deceptive lull also pertains to athletes not here yet but preparing, hoping, waiting. And, for many of them – but how many, and under what circumstances? – doping. Now in an «up» phase of revelations, the doping question will likely rivet attention at these Games and could be a sleeper issue in determining their ultimate reputation. What a topic. Few subjects are so pervasive yet elusive, obvious yet subtle, straightforward yet complex. It is full of zealous reformers battling others with mixed motives or dubious intent, both groups being cogs in a much bigger wheel that is world sport. Drug use and abuse (for they are far from the same thing) forms a complicated human interchange where the roadways of medicine, ethics, politics, bureaucracy, finance and sport all cross, or rather collide in turbulence. And drugs are one key Olympics theme – security being the obvious other – which has changed fundamentally even since 2000 as both new crackdowns and new forms of deception have come to the fore. Big names, big sports In the cascade of recent revelations of performance-enhancing drug use, perhaps the most telling fallout is the prevalence of the question: «Are they all doing it?» For it indicates that a traditional element of a civilized juridical system, the presumption of innocence, is teetering on the window’s edge in the court of public opinion. Enough individual cases eventually create a tidal wave of accusation and presumption that washes all, guilty or innocent (or both, for gray areas exist too), before it. Two major Olympic sports, cycling and athletics, have (again) been rocked by developments that could determine if their key athletes even make it to Athens. The Tour de France race, which begins tomorrow in Liege, Belgium, has been spoiled by the Cofidis doping affair, in which Scot David Millar, Britain’s best rider, has been investigated along with members of his French team after being found with vials of the endurance drug erythropoietin (EPO), brought from Poland, in his room. A recent Tour was racked with drug finds, which are usually covered up by teams in this very group-oriented sport. Five-time defending champion Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, has been accused in a recent book; the 1998 winner, Marco Pantani, was found dead recently with cocaine in his blood. Even Australia has been hit in the Mark French case. This cyclist was banned from the Olympics for life – at just 19 – for trafficking in drugs, one of them a growth hormone used for horses, for his teammates. This also hit a sore point as it implicated the Australian Institute of Sports, an official body in a country generally in the vanguard of prevention efforts. In the US, the noose is tightening around two premier sprinters, Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones. Montgomery is the 100-meter world record holder, while in 2000, Jones was the first track athlete to win five medals at a single Games. Montgomery and others have testified in a grand jury investigation of a US west coast company, BALCO, and its owner Victor Conte. BALCO produced and supplied to athletes a previously undetectable steroid, THG. Montgomery reportedly admitted using the drug in 2000-01 (his testimony being illegally leaked), and is in danger not only of being left off the US team but of a lifetime ban from the sport; British sprint champion Dwaine Chambers was caught red-handed with it. Jones, the most marketable name in her sport, also stands a fair chance of an Athens ban. She has a history of dubious personal and professional associations (including BALCO; the disgraced coach of Ben Johnson; her former husband; and her current companion Montgomery) even though she has never tested positive in 160-odd tries. Her behavior, choice of friends and fist-shaking public defense has drawn responses even from IOC President Jacques Rogge. That story is not over, and both cases also indicate a trend toward lowering the threshold of proof, in the absence of failed doping tests – themselves shown to be fallible. If the drug culture is so pervasive, then we should also expect abuses from the also-rans. Few boundaries Yet tight budgets mean that not all athletes can be tested; a few thousand of the 10,000-plus athletes at Athens will be tested. Naturally (and predictably), the focus will be on medal winners; the rest will face random tests. The sad truth is that abuse of substances knows no boundaries; the clubby nature of individual sports with protective federations, the access of top athletes to cutting-edge science, and national Olympic committees who look the other way all make it difficult to instill an anti-drugs ethos in sport. The horses, many believe, have long ago left the barn. And abuses have come from individual cases, from teams, from national or provincial authorities (swimmers from East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, China in the 1990s). Why has the system for controlling it not worked better? Much of the reason is that sport is pulled in two different directions. People want (or say they want) clean athletes and honest performances. Yet there is also crushing pressure on athletes with limited peak years to excel and to win, and an insatiable interest everywhere in seeing spectacular performances and falling world records. It sustains suspense, while athletes have been the unwilling victims of programmatic abuse. Increasingly, however, athletes are the knowing perpetrators. Some of the ongoing US cases and the Mark French example have involved suspicions of conspiracy and trafficking, not just use, suggesting a disturbingly blatant disregard for the rules. Whereas 20 years ago ignorance was a valid excuse, it is no longer with the prevalence of hotlines, websites and drug education drilled into athletes early on. There is an uncomfortable sense that only the careless get caught. At Sydney, 11 athletes or about one in a thousand were found out; curiously, the same number of Parathletes were implicated.