With drug cops in force, athletes will win when the results are in One in 6 athletes will face testing

July 18, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

For the world's greatest athletes, the final Olympic event will not be held on a field of play. Instead, it will occur behind closed doors.

It is called a drug test.

Four years after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for an anabolic steroid and was stripped of a 100-meter gold medal, the Olympic cops are back on the beat, ready to flag down potential drug abusers at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

The weapons: beakers, sealed specimen bottles, and state-of-the-art labs.

There will be 1,870 drug tests conducted at this year's Summer Games, which translates into one of every six athletes competing. Medalists, and those selected at random, will be brought into secure areas, given beakers and required to produce a urine sample.

But in this drug war, it's the users who may still have the edge, according to Dr. Wade Exum, director of drug control for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"The fact is that the incentives out there are such that we're hard-pressed to keep up with the new techniques," Exum said. "There is a lot more money spent on developing and experimenting with these substances than there is on research."

In the 20 years since widespread drug testing was introduced, there have been few victories. The system is saddled with cynicism, suspicion and enough loopholes to overturn what appear to be open-and-shut cases.

German sprinter Katrin Krabbe was one of three athletes detected attempting to manipulate a drug test in South Africa.

But she overturned the case on an appeal to the International Amateur Athletic Federation and was cleared to run in Barcelona. She chose, however, to stay home.

Butch Reynolds galvanized the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, using an historic Supreme Court order to temporarily side-step a two-year international ban for alleged steroid use. Reynolds made the U.S. team as a spare in the 4x400 relay, although the IAAF vowed to block his path to the Summer Games.

But it was Johnson's positive test for stanozolol, a milky-white substance that powered him past Carl Lewis in the 1988 men's 100-meter final, that sent a shock wave through the Olympic movement.

If the world's fastest human was a cheater, then who couldn't be tempted by the latest in designer pharmaceuticals?

Still, after nearly 700 drug tests, not one positive was discovered at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

The USOC also claims the percentage of positive tests in America has steadily declined from 3.6 percent in 1984 to 0.7 percent last year.

Yet tales of drug abuse are part of the fabric of Olympic sports.

"Competing at the Olympic level is tantamount to being a pharmacologist," said Dr. Gary Wadler, of Cornell University Medical College, during a drug symposium earlier this year.

A 26-year-old West German heptathlete, Birget Dressel, was said to have died in 1987 as a result of being injected more than 400 times with a vast array of steroids.

Eighteen Dutch and Belgian cyclists apparently died from taking super doses of the drug, EPO.

The German press reported that in the late 1980s, elite athletes became pregnant for the purpose of inducing hormonal changes to boost athletic performance.

According to hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, the root of the drug problem is money.

"The object is to win and receive large amounts of money, and because of that, the implications of drug use are rampant," he said. "People are obviously competing with male testosterone and Human Growth Hormone (HGH)."

New tools are being brought to the drug war every year, from out-of-competition tests, introduced after the Seoul Games, to blood testing, which may receive an IOC seal of approval for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.

"Without blood testing, we can't be sure of anything," said American sprinter Gwen Torrence. "I'm for it."

Blood testing will soon provide the only means to detect for HGH and erythropoietin, used for endurance because it increases ability for red blood cells to carry oxygen.

Urine remains the liquid of choice to detect anabolic steroids used to aid recovery from intense training.

But steroids are only part of the problem. The IOC list of banned substances would fill a pharmacy, and includes generic stimulants, narcotic analgesics, beta blockers and diuretics.

With so many choices, will the nearly 10,000 athletes in Barcelona remain drug-free? Not likely, Exum said.

"Of course there could be a greater scandal than Ben Johnson," he said. "The IOC is now testing for some things they weren't testing for earlier. They might surprise some people."

At the Olympics, the competition isn't over, until the drug tests are in.

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