The secret steroid

The secret steroid

Oct 23rd 2003
From The Economist Global Agenda

In what may become one of the biggest drug scandals in sporting history, samples given by athletes worldwide, including at the recent world championships in Paris, are to be re-tested for the presence of a new steroid that was designed to evade the testing regime

ATHLETES have been forbidden from using artificial stimulants since the 1920s, and since the 1970s they have had to give urine samples to show they are not pumping up their muscles by injecting anabolic steroids?a class of synthetic drugs that promote tissue growth. But it now appears that runners and jumpers in several countries have been using a hitherto unknown steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), which is believed to have been designed specifically to evade the sporting authorities? doping tests. On Wednesday October 22nd, America?s governing body for athletics, the USA Track & Field (USATF) confirmed reports that four American athletes, as yet unnamed, had tested positive for the drug. Britain?s fastest sprinter, Dwain Chambers (pictured here), also admitted having tested positive for the drug, though he denied having taken it knowingly.

A firm from the San Francisco area, BALCO, which supplies nutritional supplements to sportsmen (including Mr Chambers), has denied allegations that it concocted and distributed the new drug. A federal grand jury is investigating the firm and has subpoenaed a number of America?s best-known athletes, including two baseball stars, Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds, though no allegations of drug abuse have been made against them. It is still unclear how big the scandal will turn out to be. However, last week, Terry Madden, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, said: ?I know of no other drug bust that is larger than this involving the number of athletes involved.?

THG was unknown until a sports coach anonymously sent a syringe full of the substance to a testing laboratory in the University of California, Los Angeles, in early June. A new test to detect the presence of the substance in body fluids was hurriedly developed. On Tuesday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)?a body set up after a drugs scandal at the 1998 Tour de France?said it had sent details of how to test for THG to all accredited dope-testing laboratories throughout the world. Players in the Rugby World Cup, currently under way in Australia, will be tested for the substance.

Anti-doping laws and their enforcement vary widely in different countries and between different sports in the same countries. That is why, on October 16th, a conference of the United Nations body, UNESCO, voted to create an international convention against doping, whose aim is to harmonise anti-doping laws around the world. The scandal over THG also comes as Rio Ferdinand, a member of England?s national soccer squad, faces the possibility of a lengthy ban, for failing to take a scheduled doping test last month.

For as long as there have been competitive sports, athletes have taken performance-enhancing substances, going back to the stimulating potions taken by Ancient Greek sportsmen. In the 19th century, cyclists and other endurance athletes kept themselves going with caffeine, alcohol and even strychnine and cocaine. In 1928, the precursor of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), became the first world sporting body to forbid stimulants. But the ban was ineffective because there was no way of testing for many of them. The invention of artificial hormones in the 1930s made the problem more severe.

In the 1960s, the world bodies for cycling and soccer became the first to introduce doping tests. However, there was no reliable test for steroids until the 1970s. Once it was introduced, there was a big rise in the number of athletes being disqualified, culminating in the scandal of Ben Johnson, who broke the world 100-metre sprint record at the 1988 Olympics, only to be stripped of his gold medal afterwards, when his urine sample showed the presence of steroids. Mr Johnson insisted that he was far from alone in using banned substances and he seems to have been right: in the 1990s, as improved doping tests made it harder to get away with such cheating, the results achieved by top-level athletes in some sports showed a notable decline.

So far it is unclear how long athletes have been taking THG, or how widespread is its abuse. The IAAF has said it will re-test samples taken at its world championships in Paris in August. This raises the prospect of a number of national heroes being stripped of their medals?if the scandal over THG goes as wide as the pessimists fear. The scandal this week prompted USATF to announce a ?zero-tolerance? policy on doping, including plans to impose lifetime bans on athletes caught using illegal substances, rather than the current two-year bans.

The THG scandal also threatens to overshadow next year?s Olympics in Athens. Already there are worries that some of the transport links and other infrastructure that the Greek capital needs to host the games will not be completed in time. If the scandal leads to some of the world?s top athletes being absent from the games, it will dampen the celebrations over the Olympics? return to their birthplace.

The side-effects of steroid abuse range from liver and kidney cancer to infertility, baldness and even transmission of HIV (if the syringes used to inject the drug are shared). But there seems no limit to the lengths that some athletes are driven to by their will to win. In the 1970s, some tried ?blood boosting??reinfusing themselves with their own blood to boost the level of oxygen, a practice banned by the International Olympic Committee in 1986. Some then turned to erythropoietin, a blood-enhancing drug. Though this was banned in 1990, a reliable test was not available until the 2000 Olympics. Now, though a test for THG has quickly been developed, there are worries that some athletes are taking human growth hormone. Teams of scientists in various countries are rushing to have a reliable test for this substance ready for next year?s Olympics. Even if they do, the pace of medical discovery means that more new substances capable of boosting athletic performance without detection are bound to follow. The race to keep up with the drug cheats looks like going on forever.

Copyright ? 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Old news is so exciting

barry bonds is gone down like a hooker on geary steet.

Total media bullshit! There has never been a true natural olympic athlete for over 50 plus years.