The long, winding road to sports-doping curbs

China's Ye Shiwen waves after winning the gold medal in the women's 400-meter individual medley swimming final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Saturday, July 28, 2012. Ye set a new world record with a time of 4
China's Ye Shiwen waves after winning the gold medal in the women's 400-meter individual medley swimming final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Saturday, July 28, 2012. Ye set a new world record with a time of 4 (Daniel Ochoa De Olza)
Posted: August 03, 2012

Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, 16, had barely dried off from a pair of record-breaking performances in the London Olympics before facing the drip, drip, drip of suspicion that she must be doping.

The aspersions are no surprise, given the ever-growing ranks of elite athletes caught in doping scandals.

The surprising thing, at least to modern sensibilities, is that for a very long time, the use of performance-enhancing drugs, even toxic ones, was perfectly acceptable.

Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon during a stifling St. Louis heat wave by fortifying himself with brandy and strychnine, also known as rat poison. It's a stimulant in tiny doses, but as Hicks demonstrated when he collapsed over the finish line and nearly died, the margin for error is also tiny.

He was no aberration. In the 1800s, top athletes routinely used stimulants such as caffeine, stress-relieving alcoholic potions, plus cocaine, morphine, ether, belladonna, and nitroglycerin.

Today, scholars agree, doping is illegal, unethical, and rampant, despite concerted efforts to detect and punish the practice. At the London Olympics, for example, more than 5,000 drug tests will be conducted, including on every medalist.

How did doping go from de rigueur to disgraceful?

It's a sweeping story, full of the thrill of victory and the agony of the cheat.

Doping is as old as athletic competition itself, historical evidence shows.

Although the ancient Greeks didn't have anabolic steroids, they deduced the muscle-building properties of testosterone by watching castrated animals, then bulked up by eating the testicles of animals or humans.

The first death attributed to doping occurred in 1886. Maybe. Scholars disagree about whether English cyclist Arthur Linton fatally overdosed on an ether concoction during a Bordeaux-to-Paris race or won the race and died a decade later of typhoid fever.

In any case, deaths tarnished but did not transform the perception of doping. When the "modern" Olympics began in 1896, risking life for a bit of glory was still considered an athlete's prerogative.

"After doping in sport blossomed during the latter part of the 19th century, it was viewed as a standard practice, out in the open, until after World War I," wrote Charles E. Yesalis, author of authoritative books on steroids and an emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University. "Not until the 1920s was there any widespread attempt to admonish doping in sport, much less designate it as cheating."

The perception of doping as unfair - that is, counter to the spirit and ideals of the Olympics - evolved slowly as the pharmacology improved and the stakes rose, experts say. Jingoism, celebrity, and million-dollar product endorsements drove the gold rush.

It wasn't until the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France that doping controls were first imposed. The list of banned substances included narcotics, stimulants, and alcohol - but not steroids.

The year before, British cyclist Tom Simpson had died in the Tour de France. Amphetamines were found in his blood, the pockets of his jersey, and his hotel room, according to news reports.

Simpson's motto was " 'if it takes ten to kill you, take nine and win,' " Michael R. Graham, an exercise scientist at Glyndwr University in Wales, recounted in a journal article earlier this year.

By the 1960s, the real game-changers - anabolic steroids - were readily available. These synthetic forms of testosterone reduce the hormone's masculinizing effects while maintaining its growth-promoting, or anabolic, properties.

John Ziegler, a physician and weight lifter who became an avid fan of steroids, was a key to their spread in U.S. sports, historians say.

Ziegler trained weight lifters, including the U.S. Olympic team, at a facility in York, Pa. He also worked at Ciba Pharmaceuticals, which supplied him with its new anabolic steroid, Dianabol, after it came out in 1958.

When some of Ziegler's weight lifters became champions while using anabolic steroids, word of the drugs' power rippled through "other strength-intensive sports, from field events to football," wrote Yesalis.

Cheating aside, long-term steroid abuse can cause liver, kidney, and cardiovascular damage. Yet the International Olympic Committee didn't prohibit steroids until 1975 because detection methods before then were inadequate.

Some experts say those methods still fall woefully short, despite a vast, costly anti-cheating enterprise, overseen since 2004 by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Graham, the Welsh exercise researcher, cataloged the black-market arsenal of performance-enhancing drugs, which now includes recombinant human growth hormone and drugs that induce secretion of it; insulin-like growth factors; a muscle growth factor; and erythropoietin, a hormone that boosts production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

Some of these products are currently undetectable by blood or urine tests. Athletes can also exploit the limited window of detection for certain drugs, doping during training yet testing clean during competition.

"Unless an athlete is caught in possession of them," Graham contended, "the opportunity of proving a case of doping is almost impossible."

More than a few revered athletes have been implicated in drug scandals, sometimes long after they got away with cheating.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson lost his 1988 gold medal in the 100-meter race because his urine test came back positive. He later lost his 1987 World Championship record because he admitted he was using steroids then, too.

Johnson's 1988 gold was given to the silver medalist - his archrival Carl Lewis. In 2003, a former U.S. Olympic Committee director released documents showing that Lewis tested positive for stimulants during the 1988 Olympic trials, but the committee accepted his excuse of inadvertent use.

Four other finalists in that 1988 100-meter race also later fell from grace over doping.

Now, cyclist Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor, faces doping charges. Although he denies the allegations, this month two doctors and a trainer received lifetime sports bans for doping violations that occurred while they were working with Armstrong's former cycling teams.

"When some athletes use such technologies, all athletes feel the pressure to use them, merely to avoid losing ground," bioethicist Thomas H. Murray wrote in an essay for the Hastings Center, where he is president emeritus.

One proposed remedy is to ban the most harmful drugs, but give athletes medically supervised open access to "safer" ones.

But that wouldn't necessarily change the endgame.

"If the rules say you can safely take 12 grams, athletes will try doubling it, or tripling it," said Graham. "It's human nature."

Murray agreed: "It's such an intensely competitive and comparative enterprise. I think you would get a public-health catastrophe."


Contact Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or mmccullough@phillynews.com.

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