SBJ/January 28 - February 3, 2002/Opinion

No medals for Olympic drug testing

The 2002 Winter Olympics will schuss off next week in Salt Lake City under a different drug-testing administration than the one that oversaw that function in previous Games, but hype-seeking athletes needn't worry about it. So far, the new gang hasn't given them much cause to change their ways.

That was made clear a couple of months ago, when the World Anti-Doping Agency confirmed that tests at Salt Lake City for the banned, stamina-enhancing drug EPO (erythropoietin) would be essentially the same as those used at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Since the procedures netted no violators there, one can only wonder why they're bothering with them at all.

The lack of progress in sniffing out EPO came on top of a previous status report on HGH (human growth hormone), the other major drug-of-choice among top-level competitors. That one mirrors the muscle-building effects, and health dangers, of anabolic steroids, but without the peril of detection, because there's no test for it.

Accelerating a test for HGH was one of the reasons for the post-Sydney establishment of WADA. It supplanted the International Olympic Committee as the Games' drug monitor in the wake of expressions of dissatisfaction by many, including some sponsors, over the way the IOC handled its conflicting roles of promoter and policeman. The unit's independence was compromised from the outset by its financial and staffing ties to the IOC and its constituents (WADA's chief is Dick Pound, a longtime IOC vice president), but that's the price of "reform" in the world of international sport.

Not only hasn't WADA come up with a test for HGH, but, some say, the transition to it from the IOC might have slowed the search for one. Still, enough real scientific obstacles stand in the way of developing such a tool that the delay is, at least, understandable.

No such barriers have hampered the quest to test for EPO, the potent anemia fighter that healthy athletes in long-haul winter events such as cross-country skiing and speedskating risk heart attacks by using.

Allen Murray, an Irvine, Calif., biochemist and masters-level swimmer, in 1995 devised a method to identify the substance in urine samples and, using a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee, backed it up by developing an antibody that can be observed spectrographically sticking to manufactured EPO while ignoring the kind humans produce naturally. He reported his findings at scientific meetings, to favorable reviews. He hoped that with another grant and a little luck, he could have a test ready for the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

But no more support was forthcoming, and the Games of '96 and 1998 passed testless. The Sydney Olympics would have proceeded similarly if the IOC hadn't cobbled together a blood-test screener and a costly urine-analysis method developed last-minute by French and Australian researchers. Trouble was, the urine test could identify only EPO taken during the previous 72 hours or so. So no users were snared.

Further, some WADA national units, including the one in the United States, haven't utilized the Sydney system over the past 16 months by applying it to the sort of random, out-of-competition situations in which it would be most effective. The stepped-up frequency of such tests, albeit with limited tools, has been WADA's main contribution to the anti-drug campaign.

WADA was supposed to combat the reputation of Olympic drug testing as mostly an exercise in public relations, but that rap is proving resilient. "Same old same old," says scientist Murray, who's still in California and still seeking funding for his project, which he believes could detect EPO use over a longer period than the Sydney procedures. Until that perception is overcome, it's best to take results from Salt Lake City and future Games with a couple of aspirin.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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