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How America is battling the drug cheats

Mihir Bose | 16:44 UK time, Tuesday, 6 May 2008

On the walls of Victor Conte's conference room at the infamous Balco laboratory in San Francisco hangs a United States flag signed by men and women who were once the greatest athletes in the world.

The flag dates from the Sydney Olympics of 2000, when America's view of drug cheats was a lot different to now.

At that Olympics, Marion Jones's then husband, CJ Hunter, was shown to have failed a drugs test.

The revelation triggered rumours he was not alone, that there were, it was alleged, many more drug cheats in the American team.

US officials angrily rebutted such talk, claiming its athletes were clean.

Now many of the signatories on that flag, including Jones, have confessed to doping.

America had clearly been in denial about drug-taking at the turn of the century, so much so that Dick Pound, then head of the World Anti Doping Agency, even suggested that US Track and Field (USATF) should be thrown out of the IAAF, the world body that governs athletics.

Today, the picture could not be more different.

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America is at the forefront of attempts to ensure drug cheats are caught, working hand-in-hand with the US Federal authorities to achieve that goal.

Ten days ago, whilst investigating just how seriously the Americans are taking the issue of drug-taking in sport, I attended the Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

Bringing together high school athletes and Olympic champions, the event, which is more than 100 years old, showed the popularity such meets can have in the States, with nearly 50,000 gathering to watch the main races on Saturday.

There, I spoke to athletes like Olympic 400m champion Jeremy Wariner and World 200m champion Allyson Felix.

Wariner told me he realises every time he wins there are people who will think he did it with the aid of drugs. He says he is clean, but the perception people currently have of athletics is something that cannot be easily changed.

The problem is heightened by what Senator George Mitchell described to me as the vow of silence that exists.

Balco founder Victor Conte holds up a signed photo of track star Marion Jones

Athletes may know a competitor is taking drugs but refuse to shop him or her.

The senator's own report on drug-taking in baseball exposed some of the problems America faces in cleaning up its act.

And baseball will enter the dock again this summer when Barry Bonds goes on trial in San Francisco.

Before then, Trevor Graham, the athletics coach who supplied a syringe laced with the designer steroid THG to the US authorities, triggering the Balco scandal and unravelling US drug-taking, goes on trial.

And, just as Graham's whistle-blowing resulted in offenders like Jones and Tim Montgomery being caught, there are already reports that many more famous names who have always denied taking drugs could now be exposed as cheats.

As the US authorities acknowledge, such a crackdown is possible because they are now making use of federal law, not just relying on sporting sanctions.

And there are those, like multi-Olympic champion Carl Lewis with whom I spoke at the Penn Relays, who insist the next step must be to make taking banned drugs in sport a criminal offence.

But for the battle against the drug cheats to succeed, the testing programme must be robust.

Conte, who did time for his role in supplying drugs to sportsmen and women, has his doubts whether this is the case.

He is convinced the sporting authorities do not conduct tests properly - and certainly not at the right time.

And he should know. His drugs programme was designed to make sure athletes avoided detection when the testers came.

Conte spoke to me in the same room where he had planned his infamous Project World Record that aimed to make Montgomery the fastest man alive.

Some may think it a bit rich for Conte, who treated athletes like racehorses, to preach, but the points he makes are backed up by the sort of detail only a former insider would have.

The authorities would do well to take note and act on his knowledge if they are serious about catching the cheats.


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  • 1. At 5:17pm on 06 May 2008, pinetrees1 wrote:

    Reference the Carl Lewis piece - Is this the same Carl Lewis who failed a drugs test at a USA Olympic trial meet but whose results were hushed up until recently? Just checking because you know what they say aobut people in glass houses and throwing stones!

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  • 2. At 6:00pm on 06 May 2008, suren27 wrote:

    With reference to Carl Lewis i agree drug cheats should be treated as criminals. Simply because they use drugs same as people on the streets so why should they just be banned?

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  • 3. At 6:20pm on 06 May 2008, Poorpunditry wrote:

    A one dimensional report. I live over here and find your report totally misleading. I find the view on drug use in sport over here appalling. The NFL, Ice Hockey, Baseball all avoid the subject of drug use - they are not confronting it. Quite the opposite.

    The case you mention regarding Barry Bonds is nothing but a publicity stunt. Drug taking in baseball is widespread and accepted. If you were to ask any informed expert on baseball then you would discover that. Likewise in the NFL where high profile players are deliverately not tested as it would harm the image of the product. Ice Hockey is less clear but there is no real hard organised drug testing programme.

    Perhaps the story is different with Athletics but on sports which are played over here only drug use is rife.

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  • 4. At 6:30pm on 06 May 2008, tomh24 wrote:

    Drug use is prevelant because of the rewards that it brings - money and fame. However, if in any other walk of life, these were gained through 'fraud' it would be illeagal. Drug use constitutes gaining financial reward through deception. Financial deception is a criminal offence and should carry a criminal punishment.

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  • 5. At 7:01pm on 06 May 2008, BulletMonkey wrote:

    Funnily enough, in regards to Poorpunditry's comment, do you know who the most stringent drug-tester is in the American sporting world? It's not even a sporting body - it's World Wrestling Entertainment. This policy is full of holes as well, and it's taken two congressional hearings and two tragic deaths within the company (one of which, Chris Benoit who also killed his wife and son, wasn't actually the result of steroid use but was due to sustained brain damage combined with years of marital dispute) to make them pull their finger out, but it's a damn site more than the real sports do. Athletics governing bodies could learn a lot from the WWE, and they ought to. That way, the federal government can worry about more important things like immigration, national poverty, taxes, and the war.

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  • 6. At 7:20pm on 06 May 2008, popefridge wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 7. At 7:24pm on 06 May 2008, colmkav wrote:

    Lewis is correct but a total hipocrit as he admitted to taking drugs himself.

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  • 8. At 7:40pm on 06 May 2008, colmkav wrote:

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  • 9. At 8:26pm on 06 May 2008, NickIOM wrote:

    I think drug taking in sport should be made a criminal offence like Carl Lewis said. It does after all amount to conspiracy to defraud, and so should be able to be punished without any change in the law.

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  • 10. At 8:40pm on 06 May 2008, rockjoesoap wrote:

    The only way to beat drug cheats is to devalue winning. The only way to devalue winning is to allow all drug taking.

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  • 11. At 8:44pm on 06 May 2008, hammerhiem75 wrote:

    This is just getting silly, taking performance enhancing drugs is cheating true, but it's hardly worth jailing someone over.

    please for the love of whatever diety you believe in, stop this nonsence.

    The only way to stop it is to test every athelete every week and that is never going to happen.

    personally i have stopped watching Althletics not because of teh drugs cheats but of the holier than thou attitudes of those that profess not to take them, while maintaining a diet full of dietry enhancements.

    hypocracy much?

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  • 12. At 8:47pm on 06 May 2008, hammerhiem75 wrote:

    For the record, when Chris Benoit's test results came back he had Zero Anabolic steroids in his system and a below normal Testosterone level as he HADN'T been taking his PERCRIBED testoterone tablets.

    Current theory is that His actions where more to do with his colapsing marriage, seriously disabled son and huge workload.

    It helps if you don't use false infomation to further your case.

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  • 13. At 9:41pm on 06 May 2008, ColJon wrote:

    Would it be an effective deterrent to completely remove all records of achievement and take back all awards from any sports person found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs? In other words consider previous achievements unreliable and subject to doubt..

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  • 14. At 10:32pm on 06 May 2008, jaco10808 wrote:

    tomh24 - good point, it does amount to financial deception. I wonder if all these guys have had to give their illegal earnings back. The culture of silence is surely because everyones either doing it, done it in the past or hoping to get away with it in the future. I'm seriously fed up with this. I think we'll end up with a dual games - Organic Olympics anyone?

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  • 15. At 10:59pm on 06 May 2008, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso wrote:

    I think America is doing the right thing in the methods used to clean sports from drug cheats. Sports and Drugs do not mix.

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  • 16. At 11:14pm on 06 May 2008, straseed wrote:

    Regarding doping in Ice Hockey - because hockey players depend far less on physical strength and more on agility, endurance and skills that are developed rather than natural extensions of basic abilities, ie running, throwing etc - steroids have far less potential to significantly increase a player's performance and are thus usually not worth the risks involved with taking them.

    To my knowledge no professional hockey player, at least no NHL players, have ever been caught doping. Whether this is due to lack of testing or lack of use I obviously cannot say for sure, but the sport is a gentleman's sport (most of the time..) and I frankly have a hard time seeing the same culture of silence that you find in football, baseball, or track sports taking hold in hockey.

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  • 17. At 11:26pm on 06 May 2008, mrireland wrote:

    Regrettably once drugs were used to enhance performance it seems impossible to eradicate the useage.
    The manufacturers find ways to mask the use and at this point in time its impossible to find all the users as the means do not exist
    I think once they are discovered its a life ban plus return of all medals won plus all cash also, plus a fine to cover all costs etc.
    Further more all competing athletes should sign a form agreeing to these terms or forfeit the right to compete

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  • 18. At 11:44pm on 06 May 2008, lionrampant1320 wrote:

    The best way to combat the drugs issues is to put some weight behind the anti-doping agency. One agency for all sports with a single anti-doping policy.

    This would, of course, take massive amounts of drive within sport to drive out cheats - which is gathering strength - and massive funding - which could be done if a percentage of profits was donated from all business that make money from sport.

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  • 19. At 00:00am on 07 May 2008, Frozen_in_Winnipeg wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 20. At 02:16am on 07 May 2008, zinzam9 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 21. At 05:12am on 07 May 2008, creekmorehalt wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 22. At 06:51am on 07 May 2008, Black and White and Ram All Over! wrote:

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  • 23. At 09:43am on 07 May 2008, RugbyRugbyRugby wrote:

    Ah, Carl Lewis who thrice tested positive for banned substances in the same year that Ben Johnson was disqualified and has admitted taking substances that are banned today through his career (although thse admitted to were legal in hos day I think? - please let me know if that is incorrect) is leading a hardline approach against doping. Presumably he doesnt want the law to cover back dated offences!

    Even so given the drama around Barry Bonds alleged steriod use and the public outcry at it, even though the substances weren't banned at the time is it not hugely hipocritical for the public to continue to laud Lewis? It shouldn't be one rule for a popular athelete and another for a very unpopular one should it?

    Not suggesting that the treatment of Bonds acheivements isnt correct and I think next to his name and his records there should be a sidenote detailing the tainted nature of his records. I'm certainly not a fan of his.

    But, equally there should be the same against Lewis and the fact tere isnt and he was voted sportsman of the century seems a bit unfair to me.

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  • 24. At 11:05am on 07 May 2008, lionrampant1320 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 25. At 11:16am on 07 May 2008, lionrampant1320 wrote:

    And am I wrong in thinking that taking these drugs are illegal in the UK as they are technically prescription drugs? So the authorities could do something if they wanted to?

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  • 26. At 11:17am on 07 May 2008, alexander009 wrote:

    In light of the ignorance and lies on this thread regarding Chris Benoit, I feel I should clarify the facts. The autopsy proved he was suffering from severe dementia caused by extensive brain damage itself caused by his massive and unrelenting workload. That is the reason he killed his family, and nothing else, not steroids (please don’t use the word "drugs", it means nothing, try and be specific it suggests you know what your talking about), as none were found in his body, the only medication in the house was legitimately prescribed. Nor were his actions attributable to some kind of personality flaw, everyone who knew the man said he was considerate and kindhearted and that his actions were totally out of character, (in fact it was well publicized that he worked so hard precisely because of his deep love of his family). Until there is some kind of wrestlers union preventing these men punishing their bodies 300+ days a year these terrible stories with keep occurring. I appreciate it is not a sport in the truest competitive sense, but that does not justify human beings treated like workhorses, run into the ground then sent to the knackers yard when their no further use.

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  • 27. At 11:59am on 07 May 2008, argel1 wrote:

    '...Likewise in the NFL where high profile players are deliverately not tested as it would harm the image of the product.'

    Um, that is clearly not the case. Shawn Merriman, Rodney Harrison, Travis Henry, Stephen Cooper... that's just in the last 18 months.

    I agree that Baseball has it's head in the sand, but certainly in the case of the NFL, the current testing regimen is effective.

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  • 28. At 12:07pm on 07 May 2008, Blue Oracle wrote:

    I find the whole issue regarding Drug use in sport a bit hypocritical. Modern society is riddled with drugs. Pharmaceutical, medicinal and recreational. The former are of course legal...visit your doctor with an ailment, and chances are he/she will only be too hasty to presribe the latest drug manufactured at great profit by a pharmaceutical company. Any therapeutic system that does not involve drug use is sneered at, derided and discouraged by the system. Medical science rules and Big Pharma gorges itself on its' huge profits.
    But woe betide any sports person who decides to utilise aspects of this science to assist their training. Athletes are a part of our society, yet we expect them to be a breed apart and not conform to the usual norms. The only way to eradicate drug use in sport is to change the nature of society and the utter dependence upon pharmaceuticals.
    But alas, that will never happen. There are vast profits to be made by too many powerful entities and the establishment itself.

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  • 29. At 12:13pm on 07 May 2008, diesel1984 wrote:

    Just because benoit tested negative for steroids in his system, does not mean that he was not taking them - it is possible to use steroids that are out of the system within 24 hours whilst others can still be traced over a year later.

    If anyone seriously thinks that you can get as big as benoit without taking steroids then you are seriously mistaken.

    But the side effects of the drug are simply not worth the risk.

    Carl lewis is spot on with what he says about sportsmen taking performance enhancing drugs.

    I don't recognise any of dwain chambers past "achievements" since he got caught. And he shouldnt be allowed to compete in future events because his body would not be in the shape it is today, if he had never taken the drug in the first place.

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  • 30. At 1:40pm on 07 May 2008, Blue Oracle wrote:

    In response to diesel1984, anabolic steroids are primarily an aid to training and recovery. They also aid in the synthesis of protein to promote muscle growth. A mythical steroid that is able to vacate the system in 24 hrs will be absolutely useless.
    Additionally, gains in muscularity diminish over a relative short period of time once steroid use is discontinued. No amount of training and nutrition will serve to maintain the muscularity and size derived from the use of anabolics.
    I suggest you gain some knowlegde on the subject before posting your comments.
    And to the smarmy Carl Lewis, Chambers did have natural talent as a sprinter. His steroid use was an attempt to enhance that make him into a winner. Steroids cannot make a mediocre non talented sprinter or sportsman into a world beater. They merely enhance and proffer an edge

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  • 31. At 2:30pm on 07 May 2008, alexander009 wrote:

    Benoit passed regular urine and blood tests for steroids shortly before his death. He was on prescribed testosterone tablets to keep his hormonal balance in order precisely because he did not take steroids anymore as he had in his youth, when the industry was rife with them and attitudes were different. Had he been taking steroids they would not explain his actions in any case. Carl Lewis is not correct in any way shape or form, cheating at sport is not a criminal offence, it is not life and death, users are not harming anyone, they are not committing any enforceable legal wrongdoing, they are essentially cheating at a game. If you took this ludicrous notion far enough you could prosecute people for diving in football, or batsmen for not walking when knowingly out in cricket. Sport such as athletics, the various disciplines of which are built on the principles of faster, higher, further, rather than artistry or creative thinking, will always suffer these problems. On a broader social level criminalizing drugs of any description is proven to enhance the problem rather than combat it. Only with openness understanding and honesty, rather than anger punishment, revenge, and lets face it hysteria, can we hope to dissuade people from harming their bodies. This may seem like liberal nonsense to some, but we have tried punitive measures and criminalization for a long time and the problem has only gotten worse, perhaps it is time to take a different humane approach until we can prove its effectiveness or otherwise.

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  • 32. At 3:48pm on 07 May 2008, Digger28 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 33. At 9:35pm on 07 May 2008, Dolfan_Paul wrote:

    High profile players are tested in the NFL, one of the top RB in the NFL Ricky Williams has been caught 3 times and was banned for 4 games the 2nd time and 1 whole season the 3rd time.

    The NFL has a very strict drug policy with players regulary getting caugh, and once caught players are subject to regular tests.

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  • 34. At 10:26pm on 07 May 2008, diesel1984 wrote:

    lol at JMBLUE telling me to "gain some knowledge on the subject before posting".

    I have been a semi-serious natural bodybuilder for the past four years. I have read many books about steroids which is the prime reason why i choose to avoid them.

    Wrestlers like benoit no doubt train very hard but you simply cannot achieve that kind of muscle mass without taking them.

    And im quite aware what they help you achieve.

    It is blatantly obvious to the naked eye who is taking them and who isn't.

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  • 35. At 01:58am on 08 May 2008, alexander009 wrote:

    If you are a natural body builder you will know there are men in your field built bigger than Benoit, how do you explain this. There is no question that he was not taking steroids as I explained, if he were he would not have been taking the other medication. There were no steroids in his house or in his body when he died this is simpley not up for debate.

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  • 36. At 3:03pm on 10 May 2008, Blue Oracle wrote:

    In response to Diesel 1984, I suggest you go back and read some more books. If as you say, you are fully aware of how steroids work, you should know that a mythical steroid that vacates the body in 24 hrs will be absolutely useless.
    I am going to be rather blunt you have been a natural bodybuilder for 4yrs..Big deal! I have been a natural bodybuilder for over 20yrs. I ran my own gym for 10 of those yrs. Knowlege of different anabolics was an intergral part of my business.
    No one is disputing the fact that Benoit had a history of steroid use. Question is, was he still using them? I would suggest otherwise. Prolonged use of anabolics causes the body to shut down it's production of testosterone. The body then needs aid to restart this production..certain synthetic hormones provide this...hence the bottle found at Benoit's home.
    And Mr Diesel 1984, I suggest you ask some of the non natural bodybuilders at your gym, what happens to their much beloved extreme muscularity when they discontinue steroid use. They will give you one answer...they shrink! A touch of muscular atrophy sets in! Bottom line is, muscularity gained thru steroid is is not permanent!

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