Broad attack on drugs finally becoming reality

Sports Views

Posted: Sunday, November 02, 2003

Skirmishes against drugs in sports often seem futile. A bust here, a bust there, then business as usual.

Something bigger is brewing these days, an assault on several fronts that could blow the lid off the toxic games athletes, trainers and doctors play with steroids and stimulants.

Taken together, these and other activities represent perhaps the broadest attack on performance-enhancing drugs in history:

Five years after Mark McGwire became the unwilling poster boy for androstenedione, a powerfully backed bill in the Senate would reclassify andro and other steroid ''precursors'' from over-the-counter supplements to controlled substances.

The Food and Drug Administration last week declared the stealth steroid THG illegal, leading Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer to ban it.

Two distinct investigations offer glimpses into the easy access athletes have to supplements and drugs.

A federal grand jury is probing a nutrition lab that worked with San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds and dozens of other stars in several sports. The lab is believed to be the source of the previously undetectable THG sent to anti-doping authorities by an anonymous, whistle-blowing coach.

Separately, the University of Washington is looking into a ''Dr. Feelgood,'' a 75-year-old retired physician who allegedly dispensed steroid gels, stimulants and pain pills improperly to student athletes for more than a decade.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, wielding considerable medical and political clout, is putting more pressure on all sports to crack down on cheats in the run-up to the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Beyond the athletes who might get caught in the tests and legal inquiries, the message is going out loud and clear that the drug culture in sports must change. The credibility and health of athletes are at stake.

If andro becomes a controlled substance, baseball would be compelled to ban it and test for it just like THG. That would put baseball at least partly on the same page with other sports, making it a violation for any ballplayer to take the same muscle-building agent McGwire took when he hit 70 home runs.

In the post-McGwire years, andro has become passe to the artificially pumped-up set. Other cocktails concocted by nutrition companies work better to get that thickly chiseled look with fewer side effects.

Yet if Congress has been slow in proposing the andro ban, the reclassification of the whole category of steroid precursors still would be a milestone for anti-doping crusaders.

Significantly, the bill to outlaw andro is backed on both sides of the aisle by Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Hatch was the chief force behind the 1994 federal act that let andro slip through as a dietary supplement.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is pushing similar legislation that would give the FDA broader oversight of dietary supplements to prevent steroids from being sneaked onto the market. Durbin argued last week that the FDA's strike against THG falls short of dealing with similar substances.

The wonders of chemistry, plus hours in the gym, can help make a sprinter or swimmer a tenth of a second faster and give a home run hitter a little stronger swing. It's not a substitute for talent, but it gives users an edge.

That's why many elite athletes the ones who claim they are clean and resent competitors who are not are cheering anti-doping efforts.

The NFL and the players union are teaming up to conduct retroactive testing for THG. Samples from this summer's U.S. and world track and field championships will be retested, and a lifetime ban has been proposed for those who test positive for THG in the future.

''I've had people ask me, 'Do you think it's going to ruin your sport?''' two-time world champion shot putter John Godina said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. ''But this is just better and better and better. Every time somebody gets caught, it improves your sport.''

Four U.S. track and field athletes have tested positive for THG, and Europe's top sprinter has acknowledged taking it in supplements he thought were allowed.

Stacy Dragila, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the women's pole vault, called the anonymous coach who sent the anti-doping authorities the syringe filled with THG ''a hero.''

''I think a lot of people have been wanting to be able to be that person,'' Dragila said. ''For someone to take that step and go to that next level has really opened the doors.''

Cautionary tales about performance-enhancing drugs have been around for years. In the 1980s, Americans thought the main culprits were East German women swimmers with husky voices or Bulgarian weightlifters in bulging tank tops.

Now the various investigations and refined tests are creating a clearer picture, and Americans are discovering that the cheating is closer to home.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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