Many competitors at the Olympic Games will not only beat their honest rivals, they will also beat the most sophisticated testing system in international sport.
Of the 1,600 urine samples that will be analyzed at a Pounds 3 million center for identifying illicit substances during the fortnight of the Games, probably less than one per cent will register positive. That has been the success rate at previous Olympics and there is no reason to suppose it will be improved here.
The rate is even less than the average of two per cent positive recorded last year in all the International Olympic Committee accredited laboratories, analyzing 37,000 samples throughout the world.
But as Professor Arne Lundqvist, of Sweden, the president of the medical commission of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), said here yesterday: “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Like all illicit activity, people invent new ways of escaping detection. We would be naive to think we could have a foolproof system. We take action to minimize the risk.”
Two weeks ago, Peter Coni, in announcing his report into drug abuse in British athletics, said that it would be a brave man who did not consider that a figure of 10 per cent of drug taking at the top level of the sport was impossible. His surmise is close to the opinion of Prince Alexandre de Merode, of Belgium, president of the medical commission of the IOC, which considers that it is 6 per cent across all the sports in the Games.
Consider the evidence of just last week:
Four weightlifters including Kevin Roy yesterday have been barred from the Canadian weightlifting team and suspended for two years after a positive test for hormone drugs. They included Jacques Demers, a silver medal winner in Los Angeles, who was arrested in 1983 for smuggling steroids into Canada and in 1986 was barred from the Commonwealth Games for suspected drug abuse. He was acquitted on both occasions.
Belgium dropped two members of its Olympic track cycling team from the Games after the riders were positively tested for drugs.
Four Italian cyclists including two world professional champions, have also been positively tested.
Sir Arthur Gold, of Britain, speaking at yesterday’s symposium on drug abuse, repeated his favorite saying that the only people who will be caught here will be the “careless or the ill-advised”.
He is right to stress these words because those competitors taking banned substances are usually extremely careful to avoid detection.
Those who take steroids will come off the drug, which helps a competitor to increase muscular body weight and recover more quickly from intensive training, several weeks before an event. Traces of the drug will have left the individual by the time of the Games, although most of the benefits will remain.
Only a few countries, including Sweden, Norway and Britain, have tried to counter this practice by having out-of-season competition testing. But during the period off steroids, some competitors have the option of switching to Human Growth Hormone (HGH), for which there is no reliable test. Professor Arnold Beckett, of the medical commission of the IOC, regrets that at the moment there is not a “cat in hell’s chance of determining the misuse of HGH”, although many people believe that its benefit is limited.
HGH, which was originally produced from human cadavers, has been used for the last 25 years to treat children with growth-hormone deficiency but it is available on the black market in both Britain and the United States. Last year a supply worth about Pounds 50,000 disappeared from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
Competitors may, in any case, be able to mask hormone drugs by simultaneously taking other substances. When several American athletes began taking Probenecid, a designer drug manufactured largely for the treatment of gout, the IAAF banned its use.
But as Professor Beckett recognizes, other masking drugs may be used. “There is so far a lack of sufficient investigation.”
One may be some contraceptive pills which contain a substance, norethisterone, which can hide the presence of hormone drugs. The IOC medical commission is to examine this problem again.
Competitors in events requiring stamina can also use the practice of “blood doping” or “blood packing”, in which competitors have at least a pint of their blood drawn and refrigerated. The competitor then makes up the deficiency through natural regeneration and just before the event the stored blood is injected back into the competitor’s body, thus giving him extra oxygen-carrying resources, useful particularly for long-distance events.
The practice has been admitted by one Finnish long-distance runner and the American cycling team of the 1984 Olympics. Although it is outlawed, Professor Beckett admits there is no reliable test now or in the immediate future for blood doping.
But it could become superfluous since competitors can use Erythropoietin, which produces red blood cells. The drug will soon become commercially available and at present is neither outlawed nor detectable.
The struggle seems endless. But occasionally there are successes. Four years ago, Martti Vainio, of Finland, was positive for steroids and stripped of his 10,000 meters silver medal. Members of the medical commission were surprised at the carelessness.
Now it is believed that although he did stop taking steroids several weeks before the Games, he was also “blood doped” and when the blood was reinfused before Los Angeles it contained traces of the hormone drug he had been employing for training when the pint was withdrawn several months earlier.
Occasionally the testers do win a gold medal at the Olympic Games.