- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

LONDON — During more than 30 years of drug checks at the Olympics, the cheaters usually have managed to keep a step or two ahead of the testers.

But the gap is closing, and with the Athens Games less than three months away, anti-doping officials say the chances of beating the culprits are better than ever.

Armed with new tests for previously undetectable substances, expanded pre-Games and in-competition controls and a new global resolve against drugs in sports, the Olympic doping police are making gains in their “zero-tolerance” drive.

“It has always been a game between the gamekeeper and the poacher, and mostly the poacher has a bigger advance on the gamekeeper,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said. “But today I can say we have caught up with the cheats, and we have the tests that are needed.”

Since the IOC began drug testing at the Olympics in 1968, there have been 59 confirmed positive cases at nine Summer Games and 12 positives at 10 Winter Games.

The most positives at a Summer Olympics was 12 at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. There were 11 in Sydney four years ago.

The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics produced seven doping cases, two more than the total at all previous Winter Games.

The highest-profile Olympic drug bust, of course, came at the 1988 Seoul Games, where Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 100 meters after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol.

Big stars also were nabbed in Salt Lake City — German-born Spaniard Johann Muehlegg was stripped of three gold medals, while Russians Larissa Lazutina and Olga Danilova lost gold and silver medals.

The three cross-country skiers were caught after the IOC secretly introduced a test for Aranesp, or darbepoetin, a newly detected endurance-enhancing drug.

“The IOC never hesitated to disqualify famous athletes. May I remind you of Ben Johnson,” Rogge said. “We have sent home famous athletes in the last Olympic Games. We will do it in the future if that is needed, there is no doubt about that.”

The Olympics have also produced some tough-luck drug cases: Teenage Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan was stripped of her all-around gold medal in Sydney after taking a common cold tablet on the advice of her team doctor; British skier Alain Baxter lost his slalom bronze in 2002 after testing positive for a stimulant contained in a nose spray.

Under the Olympics’ strict liability rule, athletes are responsible for any banned substance found in their system. A doping offense results in automatic disqualification.

Pseudoephedrine — the stimulant involved in Raducan’s case — and caffeine have been removed from the list of banned substances.

Athens will be the first Olympics held since the adoption of the World Anti-Doping Code, which establishes a single banned list and sets out uniform rules and sanctions.

Among the measures for Athens:

• The IOC plans a 25 percent increase in the number of tests, including 2,500 in-competition controls and 380 pre-event checks.

• There will be extensive testing for EPO, which boosts endurance by stimulating production of red blood cells. A combined blood-urine EPO test was first introduced in Sydney but produced no positive findings. Since then, experts have agreed on a stand-alone urine test.

• The top four in all finals will be tested, plus two others at random. In endurance events, all medal winners also will be screened for EPO.

• The testing program will begin with the opening of the Olympic village July 30 and last until the closing ceremony Aug.29. Athletes can be tested anywhere in the world, including training sites, during that period.

• Pre-Games tests have been expanded to cover the “full menu” of banned drugs, not just those prohibited out of competition. Previously, out-of-competition controls did not test for certain stimulants.

• Tests will screen for THG, the steroid unmasked last year that is at the center of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal.

• Athletes who claim to have certain medical conditions, such as asthma, will be required to apply for “therapeutic exemptions” for use of any medications.

Meanwhile, IOC and WADA officials say there’s a good chance Athens will implement tests for drugs that until now have escaped detection — including human growth hormone, or hGH, believed to be one of the most widely abused performance-enhancers in sports.

Officials won’t announce whether the tests are in place in order to keep the athletes guessing. Even if the tests aren’t ready, urine and blood samples will be stored for retroactive checks.

“If I were somebody who has been or is thinking about getting on hGH for example, I would be a nervous puppy at this point,” World Anti-Doping Agency chief Dick Pound said.

In addition, national anti-doping bodies around the world are testing their athletes to screen out any drug cheats before they get to Athens. In the United States, investigators are reviewing evidence from the BALCO case to determine whether to ban athletes even without a positive test, including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

“It’s a gradually shrinking circle,” Pound said. “I don’t think anybody’s in position to say we’ve now solved the problem and we have a test for absolutely everything.

“But I think the THG and other scandals have got a lot of people thinking about this and not wanting to send anyone to the Games that might prove to be a national embarrassment.”

While officials are reluctant to predict how many out of the 10,500 athletes in Athens will test positive, there’s a good chance that more will get caught this time.

“You always hope in the back of your mind that there won’t be cheats coming forward,” WADA director general David Howman said. “But I would guess there will probably be more positives than there have been in the past. It will show the ground is narrowing between the cheats and those who don’t.”

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