The menace continues

The fight against doping has assumed great significance in the field of sports. Millions of dollars are being spent by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the governments across the globe to rid sports of “cheats”. By K. P. Mohan.

The figure of Ben Johnson, right index finger raised, glancing sideways at Carl Lewis, as he crosses the line, looms large as one mentions doping in Olympic Games.

No, the Canadian was not the doping trend-setter in Seoul in 1988. But he surely has been the most talked-about doping case in the history of Olympics through these 24 years.

Twenty years before Johnson tested positive for steroid stanozolol and was stripped of his 100m gold and packed off from the Korean capital in disgrace, Olympics had seen its first dope ‘positive’. Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a Swedish team member in modern pentathlon, had gained the dubious distinction of being the first to be disqualified in an Olympics for using a prohibited substance.

But Johnson has remained the ‘prime villain’. The Canadian of Jamaican origin was life-banned following a second doping offence in 1993 after he came back to the Barcelona Olympics, though without making the 100m final.

A third dope ‘positive’ came in 1999 but by then Johnson was clearly out of international athletics. Today, at every opportunity he speaks of the “conspiracy” to disqualify him and talks of the rampant doping going on in the world of athletics. He also loses no opportunity to run down Carl Lewis as another athlete who doped but was not punished.

More than ever before, the fight against doping has assumed great significance in the field of sports. Millions of dollars are being spent by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the governments across the globe to rid sports of “cheats”.

They say millions are also being spent by athletes and spurious drug manufacturers to keep abreast of the anti-doping authorities. Some say the fight is unequal since the dopers are always ahead of the testers; others say it is much exaggeration.

London will see a state-of-the-art laboratory that has been specially commissioned for the Olympics, an expert group of scientists led by Dr. David Cowan of King’s College, and some 6250 tests through the Games phase.

In the largest number of tests being planned in an Olympics, around 5000 samples would be collected in-competition. The Games phase will begin as the ‘village’ opens and rules will allow the IOC to test athletes in London and anywhere else in the world prior to the Olympics.

But then is this kind of mobilization going to deter the ‘hard-core dopers’? Experience does not show that there could be any slackening on the part of the ‘cheats’. Athens in 2004 caught 26 offenders including cases where athletes were penalized for offences other than ‘positive’ tests.

Beijing last time came up with 14 including five cases which were detected in post-Games re-testing for CERA (continuous erythropoiesis receptor activator), a variation of erythropoietin (EPO) that enhances red blood cells and thereby endurance levels.

There is always a claim about the Games likely to be the “cleanest” or a claim after the event that they were actually the “cleanest”.

Of the 21849 tests conducted so far in Olympics only 105 ‘positive’ cases, a mere 0.49 per cent, have been reported. This is a small percentage compared to the large-scale doping that goes on.

When you test 4770 samples and come up with nine ‘positive’ cases as was the case in Beijing (five cases of CERA were detected in additional testing of 948 samples), then it is natural only for you to think that doping after all is not so widespread as had been made out.

But that quite often is a distorted picture.

“There have been positive cases in each Olympic Games since we have started testing,” IOC President Jacques Rogge told BBC Sport last January.

“To say there will be no positive cases would be naive and misleading. I hope it’s the case, but reality tells me that there may be positive cases.”

Before Beijing, the IOC mounted quite an offensive in collaboration with the International Federations to test athletes preparing for the Games and achieved substantial success. If that kind of effort produces the desired results this time, then one can hope to see lesser number of ‘positive’ cases coming out of the London Games.

People generally confuse passing a dope test with being “clean”. Quite often that need not be the case. It is only by accident that athletes come into Olympic Games or World championships with traces of banned substances still within their systems. They and their expert advisors know when to stop using the drugs close to a competition so that the drug is washed out of the system, without all its advantages being lost.

That is why biological passport has become so important in the fight against doping. It is yet to spread across sports and around the globe, but the strategy is slowly becoming effective. Athletics had its biological-pass-related suspension recently when Portuguese distance runner Helder Ornelas was banned for four years for showing abnormalities in his blood profile over a period of 11 months.

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), one of the first to introduce dope-testing in its sport, had scored a major victory in exposing the sample-switching batch of Russian female athletes.

Seven Russian athletes were suspended dealing a severe blow to Russia’s Olympic aspirations as the IAAF established after a year-long investigation that the athletes were switching samples by using “substitute urine samples” in order to clear dope tests.

The batch included Yelena Soboleva, the leading 800m and 1500m runner in 2008, Tatyana Tomoshova, who took the 1500 silver in Athens, and former world champion in 5000 metres, Olga Yegorova.

Athletics (28) is number two to weightlifting (36) for the number of dope violations in Olympics. Cycling which has an otherwise high rate of doping has only reported five so far from 1968 through to 20008.

The BALCO scandal in 2002 brought to the fore an array of acknowledged superstar athletes who had been fooling the world for years resorting an assortment of drugs including the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG).

The most painful revelation was the one relating to American Marion Jones. The woman with the enchanting smile who captivated the Sydney audience and those around the world, with three gold medals and two bronze in the 2000 Olympics, admitted that she was on drugs at that time and was stripped of those medals. Jones later served a prison term.

It is very rare that a star athlete is caught doping in a major championship. To that extent, the Beijing “catch’ of Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain, who won the 1500m gold there, in re-testing for CERA, along with Lyudmila Blonska of Ukraine, the 2007 World championship silver medallist in heptathlon, Greeks Fani Halkia, Athens Olympics 400m hurdles champion, and Athanasia Tsoumeleka, 20km walk champion in the 2004 Games, were very significant.

There have of course been doping sanctions imposed on champion athletes who had not turned in ‘positive’ tests but whose intentions were very clear to the IOC’s anti-doping commission.

Greek athletes Kostadinos Kenteris, the Olympic 200m champion in Sydney, and Ekaterini Thanou, the second-placed athlete in the Sydney 100 metres, were involved in a dramatic motorbike crash after they evaded IOC testers in the Games Village in the 2004 Games.

In what was a major embarrassment for the host before the Opening Ceremony, even though they successfully evaded testing, they were both suspended for missing tests by the IAAF. Years later they walked free from a criminal case, however, for having falsified evidence to concoct the motorcycle accident.

The Athens Olympics also saw two Hungarian athletes, discus thrower Robert Fazekas and hammer thrower Adrian Annus, both silver medal winners in the 2003 World championships, being punished for missing the test and falsifying urine sample.

The IOC’s attempt to bring in an additional Olympic ban, apart from the disqualification in the event in question, did not meet with approval from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) last year. The same CAS panel ruled against a British Olympic Association (BOA) rule which allowed a life ban on British athletes caught doping appearing in Olympics.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a creation of the Olympic Movement in 1999, is revising its Code for 2015 and proposing an additional Olympic ban that the IOC failed to sustain before the CAS on an appeal from the US Olympic Committee (USOC) in the 400m runner LaShawn Merrit case.

Apart from Merrit, who came back after a 21-month doping suspension to compete in last year’s World championships, Justin Gatlin, the U.S. sprinter, is also on a comeback from a four-year doping sabbatical. It is amazing that Gatlin came through as the No. 1 U. S. sprinter from the Olympic trials, just as Chambers did in England.

The IOC surely won’t be pleased if too many athletes with a doping past come back and corner Olympic glory, though Rogge has said that he was against life-ban.