Bad food supplements could be harming top athletes, study finds

A host of athletes accused of being drug cheats could be the victims of contaminated nutritional substances, according to a scientific report published in Athens yesterday. An investigation, carried out by German scientists and funded by the International Olympic Committee, into legal, over-the-counter supplements found that 15 percent of them contained traces of banned substances including anabolic steroids. «There may be many famous athletes who have been victims of these supplements,» Professor Hans Geyer told the Olympic Congress on Sports Science, taking place in Athens. «Athletes like Merlene Ottey, Linford Christie…» he added. The scientific analysis carried out on 634 legal supplements, including vitamins, minerals and amino acids, purchased in 13 different countries showed them to contain undeclared quantities of up to nine prohibited anabolic agents, known as prohormones. Geyer said the levels of steroids in the supposedly safe supplements would have had no impact on training or performance but would be sufficient to show up in dope testing. The fallout from Olympic gold medallist Christie’s positive test in 1999 for the use of the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone, or norandrosterone, spurred Geyer into action. «We couldn’t believe these athletes took these substances. They are tested very often. It would be very stupid of them to take norandrosterone as it is very easy to test for,» Geyer told Reuters. Joined by his colleagues at the Sports University in Cologne, they began to look into the nutritional supplement market. The results led them to conclude that it was «probable that these athletes were victims.» A rash of doping scandals involving nandrolone from 1998 onward led many national federations to question doping procedures but left athletes facing the burden of proving their innocence. «The athletes back in 2000 did not know the risks,» said Geyer. He said there was no way for doping authorities to distinguish between drug cheats and victims. Nutritional supplements containing performance-enhancing prohormones such as testosterone are banned in Europe but they are available over the counter in the US, where they feed the growing non-competitive leisure market. All prohormone products are prohibited by international sports federations and would show up in dope tests. The IOC study could lead to a battery of lawsuits against the companies producing supplements from athletes whose reputations and careers have been harmed by positive dope tests. The scientists said the likely source of cross contamination came from companies producing both kinds of nutritional product.