The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 17, 2000

Combating drug abuse by athletes

"If you don’t take it, you don’t make it." — (That was the axiom with track and field athletes, said Ben Johnsons’ doctor, Dr Mario Astaphan, giving evidence at the Canadian government inquiry into drug taking in sport.)

BEN JOHNSON (originally a Jamaican, domiciled in Canada) who won the Olympic 100 metres at the 1988 Games in a world record time, tested positive to anabolic steroid, stanozolol. Johnson also admitted to taking drugs prior to his record-breaking World Championship victory in Rome in 1987. The Rome record stands as rules of the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) did not allow retrospective removal of records. The rule was amended in 1989.

Of course, the history of drug abuse in sport stretches as far back as the history of sport itself. Greek athletes are known to have used stimulants to improve their performance as early as the third century BC. But Ben Johnson’s case alerted authorities to the seriousness of the problem.


At the international level, the IOC set up a Medical Commission in 1967, one of its aims being to produce a plan to combat durg abuse in sport. And, for the first time in the Olympics, drug-testing took place at the 1968 Winter Games. A similar Medical Committee was established by the IAAF in 1972. Drug testing was also introduced in the Commonwealth Games. Again significant work in this field has been done by several national sports organisations, particularly the Sports Council of UK.

By now the IOC has taken over the overall responsibility of drawing a list of proscribed drugs, accreditation and the annual reaccreditation of testing laboratories, and the updating of drug testing procedures.

At first sight the consensus within sport condemning the use of drugs to enhance performance is firm. Numerous statements to that effect continue to be made from the highest quarters. And, Sebastian Coe, speaking on behalf of the Olympic athletes in 1981 stated that "we consider doping to be the most shameful abuse of the Olympic idea."

Admittedly, few sportsmen would publicly support the sensational assertion made by the American field athlete Harold Connolly that "the overwhelming majority of athletes I know would do anything and take anything short of killing themselves, to improve athletic performance." To some in the sporting community, the notion of "the sporting ideal" is largely a modern-day myth, and that in today’s world professional sport has much more in common with other forms of professional entertainment such as music, acting and dance, and should abide by a different set of ethical values.

Linford Christie will not coach athletes at the Sydney Olympics following a two-year ban for testing positive for drugsThe first difficulty is about agreeing upon a list of proscribed drugs. The IOC Medical Commission drew up a list of prohibited drugs and procedures in 1986. The list covers stimulants such as amphetamine, and the more common stimulants, including caffeine, and many cold and hay fever preparations; narcotics, painkillers, including morphine, codeine; anabolic steroids, which increase muscle bulk; beta blockers, designed to relax muscles; diuretics used to flush drugs out or to reduce weight quickly in weight-related events; and finally some hormones which can be used to increase tissue growth. The list also covers banned practices such as blood doping and urine substitution. The inclusion of beta blockers and painkillers has generated a lively controversy.

In general the IOC will, logically enough, only include a new drug on its list when satisfactory testing methods have been developed. Recently it banned EPO (erythroproetin) meant to speed up the body’s production of red blood cells and thus enable athletes to absorb more oxygen, because scientists have developed some ways of identifying it through blood and urine testing — though there is still no unequivocal detection method. And the IOC has embarked on large scale EPO testing for the Sydney Olympics. A similar problem arises with hGH, a growth hormone, which, though detectable, poses the problem for scientists of deciding what level of hGH is "normal".

Increasingly the IOC list is being seen as the international standard, and sporting bodies world over have largely adopted it.

The adequacy of the IOC list is highly dependent on the outcome of a process of technological competition between the pharmaceutical industry and the research funded by the IOC and some other Sport Federations and Councils. The mismatch in resources is obvious — the research to counter drug abuse in sport not moving fast enough to keep up with pharmaceutical advances.

On top, comes the cost of conducting the tests, at approximately $ 150 per test. Around 50,000 tests are conducted each year throughout the world. For example, the IAAF tests all athletes gaining the first three places in any of its events plus a random selection.

Since 1989 the IAAF council decided to impose random testing on all international athletes, thereby by-passing those countries where random out-of-season testing was not taking place. And the IAAF has been sending out a "flying squad" of drug testers to some countries for testing selected athletes.

Then comes the question of penalties when positive results are found. In many cases the governing bodies have shown lack of will to take exemplary action.

As to the quantum of punishment, the IOC has attempted to link the severity of the penalty to the gravity of the offence — suggesting a distinction between serious drug offences, such as the use of amphetamines, and minor offences, such as the use of ephedrine. For the serious durg abuse the recommended penalty was a two-year ban for the first offence and a life ban for the subsequent offence. For the less serious abuse of drugs the penalty for the first offence a three-month ban, for second offence a two-year ban, and for third offence a life ban. Most sporting bodies have fallen in line with this approach, though a few remain in favour of imposing stricter penalties.

Some people were critical of two-year bans, as it enabled suspended athletes to use the time to train, using drugs, without any chance of being tested, and then return to competition stronger than ever. In response, the IAAF has now made it mandatory that suspended athletes undergo regular testing during the period of suspension.

— M.S.