Even for a clean competitor, doping becomes constant test

Unseen risks abound with tainted pills, food

April 19, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Michael Phelps runs down a mental checklist before he leaves for a competition site.

He packs credentials, goggles, his favorite rap CD, an assortment of high-performance swimsuits and one warning.

Don't drink the water - or any liquid, for that matter - if you're unsure of its origin.

That order comes from his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bob Bowman. If you think he is being paranoid, go back a decade, when a Tonya Harding-led confederacy of dunces tried to whack Nancy Kerrigan and her knee out of the Olympic figure skating picture.

The fastest all-around swimmer ever, Phelps should be prominent at the 2004 Olympics, a serious threat to match the record seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972. Even if Bowman didn't consider the possibility that someone could spike Phelps' drink with a banned substance and sabotage his bid at Olympic history, that quest is fraught with unseen dangers on the doping front.

NFL players, bobsledders and swimmers alike have argued that their steroid suspensions were caused by tainted nutritional supplements. Could last night's New York strip have come from a steer that was fed a growth hormone banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency? Then there is the cynicism that accompanies any groundbreaking performance.

As Phelps, 18, has gathered world records, riches and acclaim, he has sacrificed his privacy and Bowman some peace of mind.

Phelps submitted to drug testing 10 times in an 18-day span last summer, at the world championships and Summer Nationals. Elite Olympic athletes are also subject to random out-of-competition testing. A couple from Virginia routinely arrives at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center on short notice, collecting urine for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency or perhaps blood for WADA or FINA, which runs international swimming.

In essence, Olympic athletes announce their retirement when they stop notifying anti-doping authorities where they are going to be and when they are going to be there.

Samples are tested for more than 100 banned substances at the USADA lab at UCLA or a WADA lab in Montreal. Phelps hands his result receipts to his mother, who keeps them in a file at their Rodgers Forge home.

Measured approach

In an era in which there are more chemists than cops, when cheaters can experiment with designer steroids and brave new world measures that aren't on testing's radar, what do all of those negative results mean?

"I heard it through the grapevine that my name was mentioned," Lenny Krayzelburg said of the accusatory whispers that followed his being the only American male swimmer to win two individual events at the 2000 Olympics. "What can you do? You can't dwell on that, and you can't do anything about it. I can bring you all of my test results, but you know that people have cheated the system before."

Baseball and Barry Bonds remain topic A on America's doping front. USA Track and Field still hasn't resolved a cover-up at the 2000 Olympics, and swimming has also had its place on the cutting edge of sports pharmacology.

Last July, Phelps became only the second swimmer to set world records in different events in the same day. Kornelia Ender had been the first, at the 1976 Olympics. She was part of an East German doping conspiracy that led to catastrophic health problems and a protracted court case that resulted in 185 ex-athletes winning an average payout of $12,000 from the German government.

In the early 1990s, Chinese women in bulk numbers began to rewrite the records in distance running and swimming. Phelps' sister Whitney competed at the 1994 world swimming championships, where officials and coaches from 18 countries signed a position paper raising the specter of banned substances after China won 75 percent of the gold medals.

Chastened, China claimed one gold at the 1996 Olympics, where innuendo centered on Irishwoman Michelle Smith, who won three individual gold medals. Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands did the same in 2000 and faced similar suspicion from the swim community. Her case illustrates the slippery slope of guilt by association.

De Bruijn's career took off after she began to train with Paul Bergen in 1997 in Oregon. In the early 1990s, Bergen's coaching students included Bowman.

"When people point fingers at an athlete, they point fingers at you [the coach]," said Bergen, who developed America's greatest female swimmer, Tracy Caulkins. "Tracy came up in the '70s, when all the accusations about the Germans were floating around. What are you going to do about it? Get in the weight room and make a difference or whine and get beat?

"Whatever anyone can do in the short term with needles, you can beat long term in the weight room."

Looking for clues

Smith and de Bruijn were in their mid-20s when they made substantial improvement. Female athletes derive greater benefit from some banned substances than men and face greater scrutiny when they make breakthroughs late in their careers.

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