August 11, 2001

Drugs in Sport

by Jill Mahoney

'Rampant' doping goes undetected Athletes taper off use of banned substances before competition to pass tests, experts say

EDMONTON –– The detection of a banned substance in Canadian sprinter Venolyn Clarke's system was a small and isolated victory in the battle to clean up sports.

International antidoping advocates face almost insurmountable challenges, including insufficient resources, political pressure and banned substances that always seem one step ahead of testing procedures.

"Doping is just rampant among athletes," said Jon Entine, a California-based journalist who has written extensively about drug use in sports. "It's a huge presence in sports at the elite level . . . Many of the winners and many of the top athletes would not be there without the use of performance-enhancing drugs."

Thus far, one athlete tested positive at the World Championships in Athletics in Edmonton. The endurance-boosting hormone EPO was found in the system of the athlete, who has not been named pending the test of a backup sample.

However, two others, Ms. Clarke, 34, a Toronto-area teaching assistant, and Brazilian runner Fabiane Dos Santos, were suspended this week from the elite track-and-field competition after results from previous tests became available.

Stanozolol, the same anabolic steroid disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson used, was present in Ms. Clarke's system on July 31. Her coach suggested the substance got into her system from a vitamin supplement, although doping experts have said this is impossible. Elevated levels of testosterone were present in Ms. Dos Santos's system on May 6.

The cases, and the ominous echoes of the Ben Johnson incidents, have vaulted doping back into the public consciousness.

However, sport experts say legions of athletes are taking illegal drugs and most go undetected.

Testing of athletes varies greatly around the world, which lends an air of unfairness to international competitions.

When national sporting federations do not make it a practice to screen their athletes, who can taper off their consumption of banned substances before big sporting meets and evade detection, other athletes are disadvantaged.

"Definitely there is more action to be done at the international level and, of course, at the national level also," said Christiane Ayotte, director of Canada's antidoping laboratory in Montreal.

Esi Benyarku, a member of the women's 4 x 100 metres team, which is competing today, and which would likely have included Ms. Clarke, was disappointed with her teammate's situation and agrees that better international controls are needed.

"I just believe doping [regulations] should be more stringent, they have to find ways to handle it better," she said.

"It's very hard as an athlete to compete with people who are taking drugs."

Advocates for clean sports hope that the creation of a permanent headquarters for the World Anti-Doping Agency will be an important step in creating international standards and procedures.

They also hope it will eventually help in taming drug use in elite-level sports.

As well, the trend to litigate by disqualified athletes has led some national federations to back off from kicking them out of competition.

And some governments, intent on reaping the benefits that come with sports medals, instruct doping controllers to ignore positive tests.

Although Canadian testing procedures are considered among the best in the world, many, including Dr. Ayotte, believe more tests during competition and out of competition need to be conducted in this country.

"I think we are not doing enough [tests]," she said.

Indeed, before her July 31 test, which got her kicked off the Canadian team this week, Ms. Clarke had not been tested during nine years of competition.

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