Deception vs. detection

Doping battle is a constant struggle as cheaters work to stay a step ahead of new testing methods

October 08, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun Reporter

The response has become almost as familiar as the drug charges that have rocked baseball in recent years.

"Now that we have testing, this is a tired issue," the player du jour says. "No one in this clubhouse has failed a drug test, so why are we still talking about this?"

We heard versions of this response from the Orioles when a report emerged last weekend saying that former teammate Jason Grimsley had linked Miguel Tejada, Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons to anabolic steroid use.

But to the officials who have policed doping for decades in sports such as cycling and track and field, this "problem solved" thinking seems comical. Too many times, they've seen athletes be thwarted by one wave of tests only to come back fueled by a different substance or method.

The drive to boost performance by any means necessary is one that never goes away, sporting officials say, forcing them to take steps to enhance detection and prosecution of those who cheat. Just last week, cycling officials said they were exploring DNA sampling that would help them in criminal investigations, and the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the body that oversees track and field, was contemplating requiring "medical passports." These documents would allow testers to gauge if athletes' blood levels are out of whack at a given competition.

In the United States, Congressional officials have asked the NFL and Major League Baseball to freeze test samples so players don't feel they can use largely undetectable human growth hormone (hGH) with impunity.

In relative terms, the battle against doping has gone well, given that drug use and development went virtually unchecked for decades but have, in the past 10 years, become major issues in virtually every large sports-playing nation.

"We've caught up a lot since we formed," said David Howman, director general for the seven-year-old World Anti-Doping Agency. "We've narrowed the gap between those who cheat and those who don't. I wouldn't say we've won the war, but we've won a lot of battles along the way."

Familiar stories

Many battles remain, Howman and others agreed.

Cycling faced its first high-profile drug death, Tom Simpson's amphetamine-induced collapse in the Tour de France, nearly 40 years ago. In track, sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold medal for using anabolic steroids 18 years ago. Yet, each sport faced one of the worst doping scandals in its history this year.

Whether it's the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and Victor Conte with his undetectable designer drugs, South Carolina doctor James Shortt funneling steroids and human growth hormone to the NFL's Carolina Panthers, or former New York Yankees trainer Brian McNamee allegedly recommending drug connections for Grimsley, testing officials cope with myriad threats.

"The unscrupulous guys who design the drugs are better funded than the people who are fighting this," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State University epidemiologist and steroid expert. "That's the world we live in, and it's not going to change. I've seen that over 30 years."

If this year's doping scandals spoke to the resilience of drug users, they also revealed the vagaries that still hamper testing methods. For a few days, it seemed that American sprinter Marion Jones was finally unable to outrun the cloud of drug suspicion that had hung around her career. But then, her B sample came up negative, and she was cleared.

"That really changes the public and the athletes' confidence in the testing," said Dr. Clarke Holmes, chief of sports medicine at Georgetown University. "There's always going to be a chance for discrepancies, but it erodes the public confidence in the process. It really does."

Doctors and anti-doping officials are considering several ways to create tests that are more sensitive and more reliable.

WADA has discussed the possibility of a passport system for all international athletes since 2001. But the idea faces numerous logistical and legal obstacles. The greatest might be an athlete's right to medical confidentiality.

But in an ideal world, Howman said, each athlete would carry a card (like a MasterCard or Visa) that could link testers immediately to a medical history, a list of the athlete's average blood readings and records of previous drug tests.

The current tests for substances such as erythropoietin (EPO) compare an athlete's results to average blood parameters. That has led to disputes from athletes such as Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, who blamed his positive tests in France this summer on naturally high levels of testosterone.

The passport would reduce such concerns because it would compare test results to the athlete's normal levels, Howman said.

"It's not something that can be brought to fruition easily," he added, "but it's something that could be very helpful in protecting the rights of the athlete."

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