The Summer Olympics: Are Drugs Winning the games?

There will be new tests to catch the cheaters in Sydney. Will the Games be clean? Not a chance

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A more recent example: in 1996 the whole world east of Dublin and west of the Shannon doubted that Irish swimmer Michelle Smith was clean, as a hulking version of her prior self had lowered her times astonishingly. Her success coincided with her marriage to a former discus thrower from the Netherlands who had been kicked out of his own sport as a drug cheat. But Smith won four medals in Atlanta, three of them gold, while passing all her exams. She then dodged random testing for two years before being confronted one dawn at her County Kilkenny home. She reluctantly produced a urine sample, which was later found to be tainted by enough alcohol to kill her; the presumption was that Smith had added alcohol to the specimen to mask other drugs. As Sydney beckons, Smith remains banned, her medals forever tarnished by suspicion.

The I.O.C. says, That was then, this is now. Last month, in announcing new tests to be used in Sydney, I.O.C. president Juan Antonio Samaranch said, "The message is very clear. This is a new fight against doping." But he admitted that some banned substances still weren't being tested for, and when asked by a Financial Times reporter about the new, sophisticated enhancers and masking agents, he threw up his hands: "What can we do?"

What, indeed? The I.O.C. bans six classes of substances and three methods of performance enhancement. Regardless, the games in Sydney will be affected by illegal substances and methods, including:

--ANABOLIC STEROIDS These are strength builders (see chart, page 92). Short-acting, water-based steroids are now available that flush from the system in a matter of hours. The most popular are synthetic derivatives of testosterone, a hormone already present in the body. They are extremely difficult to detect. Testing for testosterone in Sydney will involve the maligned t/e (testosterone/epitestosterone) ratio. The usual ratio of these two hormones in a urine sample is about 1 to 1. Very few people have naturally elevated t/e ratios of 4 or 5, but the cut-off for the Sydney test is 6. By setting the number so high, the I.O.C. can't really discourage athletes from boosting their testosterone to that level. "Athletes don't stay ahead of testers, as people claim," says Shorter. "The testers send a message about what's the best stuff to take."

--EPO, OR ERYTHROPOIETIN EPO regulates red-cell production, and these cells deliver oxygen throughout the body. Developed to alleviate anemia in patients with kidney disease, synthetic EPO is a diet staple for many long-distance runners, swimmers and cyclists. The oxygen boost it provides can improve an athlete's performance in a 20-min. run by 30 sec.; in a marathon, by as much as 4 min.

Synthetic EPO is dangerous: an overdose could make the blood too thick for the heart to pump. The drug's introduction in 1987 was followed by a series of mysterious heart attacks among Dutch cyclists. EPO is believed to have been the cause of no fewer than 25 deaths among Olympic-caliber cyclists in the past 23 years.

Epidemiologist Charles Yesalis of Penn State, an expert on performance enhancers, says new I.O.C. testing for EPO is "fluff," that it won't detect athletes who quit taking the drug a week or so before the Games.

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