Canadian Cyclist


October 30/02 10:26 am - Drugs and Sports News

Posted by Editor on 10/30/02

Drugs and Sports

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports sends us copies of articles from around the world concerning drugs in sport. Occasionally we reprint those that we feel may be of interest to our readers.

Aftenposten (Norway)

Half of Lahti skiing medallists had abnormal blood counts

American researcher publishes secret test results from World Ski Championships

Half of the medallists at the 2001 Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti had blood counts that were highly abnormal. This finding was revealed on Friday in Jyväskylä by American researcher Jim Stray-Gundersen, who presented the results of blood tests conducted in Lahti. These results have been kept secret so far.

Stray-Gundersen, who works in Norway, pointed out that the Finns were not the only offenders in Lahti. Analysis of the athletes who placed in the top ten in the cross-country skiing events in Lahti showed that one in three had an abnormal blood count.

Therefore, if the World Anti-Doping Agency had performed surprise tests on other athletes besides the Finns, the Lahti doping scandal may have proved much worse. A total of six Finnish skiers tested positive for doping in Lahti.

Around 0.1 percent of the people in the world have naturally high blood haemoglobin counts. Though an abnormal level of haemoglobin does not automatically mean that an athlete is guilty of doping, it is somewhat far-fetched to believe half of the Lahti medallists belong to this small group.

In addition to doping, the blood count can be altered by spending time at high altitudes, but this practice is unlikely to explain the significantly abnormal levels found in Lahti. Stray-Gundersen sarcastically noted that at least one in two medallists did not cheat in Lahti.

The Lahti World Championships was no isolated case. Similar tests have been conducted at World Cup events and at the Olympics in Salt Lake City this year. Stray-Gundersen confirms that the test results from these events have been similar.

At the opening event of the World Cup last season in Kuopio, 60 percent of the blood samples of those who finished in the top fifteen showed signs of manipulation.

Also, a comparison of blood samples taken in Salt Lake City and one month later show that both cross-country skiers and speed skaters had higher levels of haemoglobin one month after the Olympics, even though the Olympics were held at a high altitude.


Professor may have doping dynamite

Norwegian-American sports professor Jim Stray-Gundersen hopes to be able to release the results of 2,500 blood tests he has run on 1,000 different winter athletes over the past three years.

Stray-Gundersen, a member of Norway's Olympians' altitude training project and the man behind the "safe" drug testing method, has taken samples of athletes in skating, biathlon, and cross-country skiing but has promised the individual international sporting federations that he will not divulge names or nations when publishing the results.

With this amount of information Stray-Gundersen has a superior background for comparisons that can help determine abnormal results.

He would not give any details but did say that he was quite sure that Norwegian sport is clean. He also said he respected a recent remark by Swedish cross-country skiing head Magnar Dalen, who said that as many as half of the participants in the Salt Lake City Olympics could have been doped.

Norway's chief for top-level sport, Bjørge Stensbøl, said that Stray-Gundersen's information can simplify the task of targeting athletes or sporting circles that have suspicious results.

Stensbøl said that the coded information was "dynamite" if cracked, but that this was unlikely, and that specific details of names and places would only be released with the permission of the respective sporting organizations.

In the meantime Stray-Gundersen has submitted his findings to the European Physical Journal Applied Physics. He says that he hopes that it "leads to change" and admits that his work has earned him many enemies.

"One can never be 100 percent sure about anything, but I am extremely sure that Norwegian and Swedish sport are clean. Norwegian athletes like Kristen Skjeldal, Bente Skari, Ole Einar Bjørndalen and Ådne Søndrål have all been very interested in helping me," Stray-Gundersen said.

High-tech cheating a threat

By David King

San Antonio Express-News

The concepts sound like something out of science fiction: Specially designed genes injected directly into the muscles of athletes to allow them to grow beyond their genetic capacity.

Newly synthesized stimulants, designed for military troops on extended duty, pushing sprinters and jumpers to new heights.

Naturally occurring chemicals used to boost the number of red blood cells without leaving a trace of themselves in the body.

Welcome to the brave new world of doping.

"It's kind of frightening," said Richard McLaren, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario and a member of the Court for Arbitration in Sport. "In the future, people will be able to alter genes any way they want - improve their deficiencies, improve their strengths. I think this one can get away from us. You're looking at modifying nature, modifying the body you have."

Virtually everyone involved in athletic training recognizes that athletes have a genetic "limit" - a maximum size for a muscle, a maximum velocity on a fastball, a maximum speed in the 40-yard dash.

But techniques like gene splicing might lead to a way to produce "super" athletes, ones who have overcome their genetic limitations in certain areas.

"There's a very select number of people who have the genetic disposition to become Division I athletes from the very beginning ... because of genetics," said Sheldon Levine, a doctor and professional weightlifter.

"If you don't have the right genes, well, they will be able to splice them in. And how are you going to test for DNA?"

These "designer" genes would become part of the athlete's body. There would be no way to test for them - at least not yet.

That's become the task of the agencies fighting against doping, both worldwide and in an increasing number of countries.

"(The World Anti Doping Agency) is committed to confronting the possible use of gene-transfer therapy in sport," said Dick Pound, chairman of Montreal-based WADA. "The same kinds of people who cheat in sport today will probably try to find ways to misuse genetics tomorrow."

One method WADA and national groups like the U.S. Anti Doping Agency are using is simple - meeting with the scientists developing the cutting-edge technologies.

In March, anti-doping leaders joined scientists and researchers at the Banbury Center of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. They discussed the potential for science - gene therapy will change the way many diseases are treated and could cure a significant number - and the potential for abuse, as well.

"We've reached out to the researchers and said, 'Look, I know you're working on this, these new drugs to help mankind,'" said Gary Wadler, a New York physician and a member of WADA. "'But it would be very nice if you also began to anticipate the abuse of these things by athletes.'"

Following another conference in October, the U.S. Anti Doping Agency announced it had a urine-based test for the use of recombinant erythropoietin, also known as EPO, that would allow for extensive out-of-competition testing.

Arne Ljunggvist, chairman of WADA's health, medical and research committee, said he expected to have tests in place by the 2004 Olympics for many more kinds of oxygen downloaders, which boost the volume or increase the efficiency of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood.

"We're getting the tests before the products are out there," said Frank Shorter, chairman of the board of the U.S. Anti Doping Agency.

In the case of some drugs, officials are getting out at least the rumors of tests.

Shorter said that during the Olympic Winter Games in February at Salt Lake City, anti-doping officials started a rumor that they had developed a test for a new type of EPO.

EPO increases the number of red blood cells, improving stamina for athletes competing in long-distance events.

The actual test was still months away, but the rumor was enough to trick at least one athlete into using an older version of EPO that could be detected in a test.

"Athletes aren't that smart," said Shorter, who was a two-time Olympic medalist in the marathon. "And the people who are managing them are greedier than they are smart."

Some observers, including Jon Entine, who has written extensively on issues of ethics and sports, note that issues involving genetic manipulation aren't always simply black-and-white.

"The whole business of doping vs. nature is a very slippery slope," he said. "In fact, it's a nonsensical slope."

While authorities seek ways to limit some forms of genetic manipulation, he said, other forms are becoming part of modern sports science and training.

"We use drugs that have been genetically manufactured all the time," he said. "If they improve performances, why aren't they banned, as well?"

Entine has made the argument that elite athletes are mutants, genetically endowed with a greater-than-normal skill in the same way as someone with an IQ of 180.

"We don't have a level playing field right now because we have these mutants," he said. "Genetic manipulation might make sports more fair. People would be able to catch up with the mutants."

Mike Paul, an expert in the field of crisis management for athletes, argues in the opposite direction.

"Do we really want sports where a guy could take a drug that would let him make every basket he shot?" he said. "Would anyone want to see that?

"I think we want to watch athletes who are doing the best they can, but 110 percent natural."

Scientists are working on ways to detect the use of supplements like human growth hormone, which produces muscle-building results like anabolic steroids but cannot be detected with current tests.

As the tests are developed, they are administered with regularity. Any athletes subject to WADA or USADA testing - those involved in Olympic sports - must be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Tests are frequent - U.S. sprinter Maurice Greene said he is checked "three or four times a month" - but the problem is that many major sports organizations, from Major League Baseball to European soccer leagues, have little or no testing.

People inside and outside sports see the next few years as critical in the battle against doping.

"If the WADA movement and the national anti-doping agency movement lose the opportunity to fix this problem now, it'll never be fixed," Wadler said. "This is the last chance the international sports movement has to correct a problem that is going to grow enormously because of the number of new products on the market."

The issue is simple - fairness.

"I believe it's important to be on an even playing field," Greene said. "If I won the 100 meters on steroids, it would be tainted."

Examining growth of supplements

By David King

San Antonio Express-News

Todd Hays was livid.

The Texan strode into a news conference for the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation during the Olympic Winter Games, loaded grocery bag in hand.

He had just learned that his longtime brakeman, Pavle Jovanovic, had tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid 19-norandrostenedione and was suspended from competition for nine months.

Hays' prospects for ending the country's 46-year medal drought in the bobsled had hit an enormous bump, a bump caused by the ban of 31 nutritional supplements - which made up Jovanovic's daily regimen, as he attempted to build and maintain the critical combination of power and speed required for elite bobsledders.

Hays was the last man to step onto the raised platform.

He upended the bag, spilling dozens of nutritional supplements, from bars to plastic bottles filled with colored liquid. All were legal, and all of them had been freely available at the athletes' village in Salt Lake City.

"There's nothing we're safe from now," he said, his voice shaking with emotion. "Where is it going to stop?"

The answer: not any time soon.

The nutritional supplement industry, by its own calculations, grew into a $1.6 billion-a-year business in the 1990s. Its reach is worldwide, and its power in the U.S. Congress is considerable.

That power was never more evident than in 1994, when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act by a voice vote in both houses.

DSHEA, as it's known by insiders, created a specific definition for dietary supplements, differentiating them from food and drugs. It set up rules about what can and cannot be said about them in promotional materials. It established standards for labeling. And it left an enormous - some critics say an intentional - loophole that has allowed the industry to post explosive growth ever since. (Editor's Note: There is at least one US Senator sitting on the Board of a nutritional supplement company!)

"The manufacturers of supplements don't have to prove they're safe, do not have to prove they're effective, do not have to prove they cure anything," said Gary Wadler, a New York physician and a member of the World Anti Doping Agency.

In other words, supplements are exempt from the rigorous testing required of new drugs under federal law.

Under DSHEA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was given the task of regulating supplements. But the law only allows the FDA to pursue cases against manufacturers if it can show "an imminent and substantial public health hazard," Wadler said.

"I mean, it really has to almost kill you - from the doses listed on the bottle - for it to be removed from the market," he said.

The industry was left to set up its own set of "good manufacturing practices" to guarantee the supplements in the bottles matched what was on the labels. The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the industry's trade group, did just that, and it represents manufacturers who produce between 90 percent and 95 percent of the sales in the United States.

But tainted products still slip through. They can produce positive results like those for Jovanovic, the U.S. bobsledder, and Ray Buchanan, a cornerback for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, when the same equipment is used to make banned and legal substances.

"The No. 1 problem is purity," said Frank D. Uryasz, head of the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which administers drug-testing programs for the NCAA, individual colleges and some high schools. "We've tested a number of the supplements here at the center, and there are regularly substances in them that are not on the label."

In addition, some supplements contain products like nor-androlone and androstenedione. Mark McGwire admitted using androstenedione in 1998 when he broke Roger Maris' single-season home-run record.

Andro, as it's known, is banned by the World Anti Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti Doping Agency, but both it and nor-androlone are legal and readily available on the Internet, and they are not banned by any U.S. professional sport.

"The body takes androstenedione and converts it to testosterone," Uryasz said. "It takes nor-androlone and converts it to a substance called nandrolone."

Testosterone and nandrolone are both considered anabolic steroids, and elevated levels of either one will produce positive drug tests in any organization that tests for steroids.

Creatine, a substance McGwire also admitted using during his record run, has fewer critics.

The substance, a naturally occurring amino acid taken in concentrated form, boosts anaerobic activity - quick bursts of exertion, like running wind sprints or jumping or swinging a bat.

"We found that creatine, when used according to guidelines, did not have any negative effects on hydration or heat tolerance," said Douglas Casa, director of athletic training education and a professor at the University of Connecticut.

Longer-term effects and possible interactions with other drugs are still unknown.

On the other hand, both the long- and short-term effects of stimulants are well known. Scandals in the 1970s led to the testing for amphetamines among athletes, and overt use decreased, especially in the NFL.

But under DSHEA, nutritional supplements can include a substance called ephedra, which produces similar results.

"It has the same effect as amphetamines - it speeds up the metabolic processes," said John Acquaviva, an assistant professor of health and human performance at Roanoke (Va.) College and an exercise physiologist.

"But it also accelerates the respiratory system and, most importantly, the cardiovascular system. The heart can beat way too fast, even when people are at rest. When you exercise to raise your heartbeat rate, your heart gets stronger. That doesn't happen when you do it with chemicals."

The effects of ephedra are increased when used with even a small amount of other stimulants like the caffeine in colas, coffee or tea, Wadler said. Both substances are banned by the World Anti Doping Agency, and the NFL this summer instituted testing for ephedra.

The Ephedra Action Council, which promotes the supplement for weight control, backs regulations that would end sales of ephedra products to minors (it already is illegal in some states, including Texas, although the law is rarely enforced).

No major studies have been conducted on long-term use of ephedra. Most evidence against its use comes from anecdotal reports filed with the Food and Drug Administration, including the presence of ephedra in the body of Northwestern University football player Rashidi Wheeler, who died last summer during conditioning drills.

"Interactions worry me," Casa said. "That case last summer of Rashidi (Wheeler), he was on a drug for asthma, but we have no idea how that drug interacted with supplements he supposedly was taking."

Wadler also is behind stricter regulation, including pre-sale testing, good manufacturing practices for all makers and tougher labeling and advertising guidelines.

"This is a health problem," he said. "We all get caught up in testing and sanctions and so on. But the majority of these kids are taking this stuff in high school. And I think that should be the reason that, ultimately, the government will have to respond."


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