No Dope, No Hope?

"You are what you eat" is a favourite health catchphrase, but in sport it seems more and more to be a case of: "You are when you cheat."

"Usage by sportsmen of any forbidden pharmaceutical substances or of methods considered as doping necessitates disciplinary action, as stated in the regulations of the Polish Sports Association. The refusal to take an anti-doping test is considered as a positive result of such a test." This is a quote from the 1997 by-laws issued by the head of the Polish Committee of Physical Culture and Sport. Doping for the first time brings a three-month disqualification penalty; there is a two-year disqualification for the second offence and a lifetime disqualification for the third.

But do these regulations give sufficient warning? The lust for success and the desire to achieve better results than one's competitors means that one forgets the consequences of being found out. The current contention that "if I don't take drugs, my opponent will" only increases the usage of doping. It is not only a race for excellent results; it is also a race to find new methods of staying one step ahead of the scientists working in the anti-doping laboratories.

The fight is on

Every country has joined in the fight against doping. The Council of Europe has set up the European Convention to Fight Doping. In 1999 the World Agency for the Fight Against Doping was established to end the current erosion of sporting ideals. Their results have so far been very modest. However, the spectacular disqualification of famous sports idols every now and then increases the demand for better methods of fighting the problem. Professional sports are now big business. The risk of losing one's good name, honour or health has been taken in exchange for money, often big money. But is it really all worth it?

The year 1998 will remain a black year in the annals of sport following a flurry of doping cases involving sportsmen and sportswomen. In the spring of that year, a large amount of growth hormones were found in the luggage of some young Chinese competitors who had travelled to Australia to take part in the world swimming championships. During the Tour de France, it was revealed that the Festina cycling team was using drugs such as EPO and anabolic steroids. It was also claimed that Italian footballers had been taking substances that endangered their health. It was these high-profile scandals that led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to create the World Agency for the Fight Against Doping mentioned above.

It is difficult to say how widespread doping really is. There is evidence that as testing has become more expert, the drug users and their suppliers have, in turn, become more adept at concealing doping. Moreover, many of the testing parameters are very wide, and some doping methods cannot be satisfactorily detected by the methods currently used. The Secretary General of Europe, addressing the World Conference on Doping in Sport, said, "In certain sports, we have discovered systematic cheating and orchestrated concealment."


Too much good, clean fun?

According to the President of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Sydney was to be the first "clean" Olympic Games in history. However, reports prepared by the American National Commission on forbidden drugs in sport demonstrated that in some competitions over 90 per cent of competitors were using doping. The report accused the IOC of a lack of determination in this fight: "No one in the Olympic movement actually supports doping," it stated, "but they quietly accept the fact that the advantages of winning a medal encourage the sportsmen and sportswomen to seek victory at any cost."

Feelings of patriotism and national pride, it continues, cause them to turn a blind eye to dope taking. The proof of this, among other things, is that the World Agency for the Fight Against Doping only has the right to suggest a solution, but it does not have the legal right to make decisions and take independent action. Representatives of the IOC refuse to make critical statements. They haven't won, they claim, but are closer to victory with regard to the detection of the EPO
hormone, which increases the production of red blood cells. They have instilled fear and misgivings in many sportsmen regarding detection, but the lack of financial support limits the fight's success. Indeed, there are good methods for finding a wide assortment of growth hormones, but laboratories do not use them because they cannot afford the expensive drug-testing equipment.

Results, results!

Carrying out over two thousand tests during the Sydney Olympics brought results, though. After the announcement of the tests for EPO, the Chinese team withdrew 27 contestants. The German Wrestling Association suspended the gold medal winner, Alexander Leipold, and ordered him to return the medal.

For more than two weeks all of France followed the lawsuit in Lille against the cyclists and trainer of the famous Festina Team. Only after tears and admissions of guilt by the French idol, Richard Virenque, did sports fans wake up and realise how widespread and deeply rooted doping is nowadays. Will these spectacular results - and there have really been more in the past months - be a warning to sportsmen and sportswomen to stop them from reaching for forbidden methods?

In the opinion of specialists, the answer is no. A Columbia University report reckons that if the fight against doping is going to succeed, there should be an anti-doping agency that is not connected with the IOC. This agency should have an annual budget of $20 million dollars, which is a modest sum taking into consideration the profits gained in sport. In their opinion, the writing of clear rules would eliminate all forms of doping.

But would it? Regular testing and severe penalties may seem like the only road to victory. After all, it is the only chance. Yet, how can regular testing compete with the new inventions of the dopers? Will there ever be a return to the old values of sport and the honest contestant? Or will our athletes eventually be cyborgs - half-man, half-machine?

by Andrzej Geber