Did USOC Underestimate Enemy in War on Drugs?

Times Staff Writers

The 11 American track and field athletes who left the 1983 Pan American Games in the wake of unprecedented drug testing thought they were slipping out of the country quietly when they assembled on a humid August night to fly to the United States.

The much-publicized drug bust in Caracas, Venezuela, collared 19 athletes from 10 countries. The charge: use of substances banned by the International Olympic Committee. The most-used drug: anabolic steroids.

That airlift of U.S. athletes--allegedly getting out, before competing in their events, to avoid the testing--was an ending and a beginning in the world of drugs in amateur sports. It was the end of public and press ignorance of what had been an underground epidemic of drug use in sport. It was the beginning of enlightenment, the declaration of a “war on drugs,” and a period of uncertainty and fear among athletes.

No longer could the problem be ignored. The “problem” walked off a plane in Los Angeles and into the bright lights of the media and the living rooms of America. Anabolic steroids might have been breakfast cereal as far as Middle America knew.

What the public wanted to know was why had U.S. athletes run from the testing? What of the testing, what were these super-machines and could they really detect what an athlete had for lunch six months earlier? Why did this bomb drop at Pan Am Games? Why the summer before the Olympics? And, most of all, why do athletes take drugs?

Not all the answers to these questions are readily available two years after the drug bust, but the fact that questions are even being asked underscores the heightened public awareness of the problem of drugs in sport. And there is a problem. The sports establishment has, in a fragmented fashion, attempted to combat drug use among athletes. The athletes have sought medical help and counsel. They have also circled their wagons to avoid detection.

Soon after Caracas, the U.S. Olympic Committee gathered itself to act. Within weeks then-USOC Executive Director F. Don Miller announced a wide-ranging “war on drugs” that would include random and informal testing of athletes in several sports, as well as a comprehensive educational program. The offensive against drugs was to be funded by a $250,000 war chest.

The most visible aspect of the USOC’s program was its informal testing, which allowed athletes to be tested without fear of sanctions. It also allowed some athletes to use the testing to determine when they were clean. Controversy flared when the coordinator of the USOC’s instructional program for elite track and field throwers admitted he had been supplying U.S. athletes with information on how to beat the Olympic drug tests.

Now, the USOC is working toward a new program of testing, incorporating formal and informal testing, but stressing education. The USOC has upped the ante from 1983, setting aside $800,000 for testing leading up to the 1988 Games.

Don Catlin, M.D., the clinical pharmacologist who ran the UCLA laboratory that was used during the 1984 Olympics, has been recently named to chair an eight-person USOC Committee on Substance Abuse, Research and Education.

“The climate is right,” Catlin said. “It takes a while for a problem like this to reach a threshold before scientists and others become involved. I think Caracas had an enormous impact in that regard.

“The USOC is clearly very, very concerned. Nobody wants to operate a drug testing program, but it’s pretty clear we need it. For testing against anabolic steroids to be effective, the testing has to take place more than every four years. It’s a training drug, not a drug taken immediately before a performance.”

Catlin’s committee has established some guidelines for the testing program, which will be conducted at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“The way it’s coming down is this: in the first offense--six months suspension plus additional testing. In the second instance--four years suspension. We’ll have a very effective appeals process, that’s important.”

The international community, while applauding the new USOC effort, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“The USOC has been quite inactive for a very long time, as you know,” said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, the International Amateur Athletic Federation’s representative to the IOC Medical Commission. Ljungqvist spoke in a phone interview from his home in Enebyberg, Sweden.

“There is still a feeling that the USOC is not, or has not, been active enough,” he said. “It (USOC) has to do much more and show that to the world. We feel that they have been more worried about (their) PR image than doing anything important. It was not nice for the U.S. when, after the Olympics, it becomes evident that the cycling team has been blood doping. Much has to be done from their side.”

The blood doping case is yet another blot on the USOC’s anti-drug record. The doping (which involves a transfusion of red blood cells in an attempt to increase endurance) was carried out on several members of the U.S. Olympic cycling team, including athletes who won medals. Blood doping is not against IOC rules, although the USOC subsequently banned the practice. The chairman of the USOC’s Sports Medicine Council, Dr. Irving Dardik, resigned after leading an investigation into the incident.

Peter Ueberroth, former president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and now commissioner of baseball, praised the USOC, but stressed that coaches and officials supplying drugs or aiding athletes in obtaining drugs should also be punished.

“They’ve (USOC) got to be steadier,” Ueberroth said by phone from his New York office. “It is going to take courage by sports leaders to get the drug war going, to eliminate those who want to cover things up. You saw what’s happening in cycling. Officials need to be responsible, as well as coaches and athletes. People have to decide that the health of an individual is more important than a nation winning a medal.”

It doesn’t add to national prestige for an athlete to win an Olympic medal then have it taken away after failing a drug test. That happened to two of the seven known athletes who tested positive at the Los Angeles Games.

Martti Vainio of Finland was stripped of his silver medal in the 10,000 meters after he was found to have taken Primobolin, an anabolic steroid. Swedish wrestler Thomas Johansson also lost his silver medal after he failed his drug test. Traces of the steroid Dianabol were found in Johansson’s urine.

Johansson admitted in a phone interview with The Times that he took 50 milligrams of Dianabol two times a week for two weeks following a nose operation.

“I took this a month before the Games,” Johansson said from Haparanda, Sweden. “I was sick. I lost very much weight. I took Dianabol to build weight up. It was very easy to get. I wasn’t afraid I would get caught. I was very surprised . . . and a little bit saddened. The Swedish people were very kind to me. I am trying to forget it.”

It’s difficult to forget. Johansson is reminded of the incident every day that he isn’t allowed to wrestle competitively. He was suspended for 18 months by the International Amateur Wrestling Federation and says he will compete again. So does Vainio, who was likewise punished by the IAAF. In what has become the usual pattern in track and field, Vainio was banned for life, but appealed and received the 18-month penalty.

Other athletes who failed their Olympic drug tests were javelin thrower Anna Verouli of Greece and weightlifters Mahmoud Tarha of Lebanon and Ahmad Tarba of Algeria. The weightlifters were banned for life by the International Weightlifting Federation.

According to Ljungqvist, who was present when all track and field samples were processed, two other track athletes tested positive at the Games--Icelandic discus thrower Vesteinn Hafsteinsson and Italian hammer thrower Giampaolo Urlando.

Additionally, a Japanese masseur, Yoshitaka Yahagi, was banned by the IOC from the next two Olympics for supplying a volleyball player with a cold cure that contained stimulants.

The IOC is not releasing further information on the doping control at Los Angeles. However, Prince Alexandre DeMerode of Belgium, Chairman of the IOC’s Medical Commission, said during the Olympics that as many as 12 positives could come out of the testing.

This closed-mouth policy raises a question as to the deterrent effect of the testing when the names of the athletes are not released. Some observers also question the legitimacy of a system that routinely reduces a lifetime ban to 18 months. In at least one case in track and field, that of shot putter Ilona Slupianek of the Soviet Union, an athlete who had been caught using drugs came back from suspension to win an Olympic gold medal.

“I think it (drug testing) worked very well in Los Angeles,” Ueberroth said. “I think it is very good and necessary. The weakness is after the tests, after there are positives. It is important how they are handled. The thing I’d worry about in future Games is how the information is handled after the positives are found. I think they should get an independent body to be given that information.”

What seems to be lacking in the punitive action taken against athletes who fail drug tests is uniformity among the various federations that govern international sport. Of greater concern to others is the way in which the drug problem is approached. For example, there remains much debate about the ethics of pre-testing of athletes by national federations before sending its group to an international competition.

Catlin said some of the first live samples to come through his $1.6 million lab were from the U.S. hockey team.

“The USOC wanted all the winter Olympic athletes tested before they went to Sarajevo,” he said.

The U.S. boxing team was reportedly tested before the Pan American Games. Ten U.S. weightlifters asked to be pre-tested by the USOC. Eight tested positively for steroids, although only Jeff Michels failed the test in Caracas. Several U.S. track athletes were said to have been pre-tested prior to Caracas. All of the U.S. athletes who left the Pan Am Games were competing in track and field.

Of course, scores of athletes were tested at the various U.S. Olympic Trials held last summer. Al Schoterman, a veteran hammer thrower from Ohio, was the only announced positive from the track and field trials.

Dr. William Weil, the LAOOC’s chief medical officer for weightlifting, told The Times that one U.S. weightlifter who made the Olympic team was caught for doping and taken off the team. Weil would not name the athlete.

Weil also said he noticed some irregularities in the random sampling procedures for weightlifting at the Games.

“The IWF (International Wrestling Federation) representative did the picking,” Weil said. “He didn’t want people from what he called sophisticated countries in regards to drugs. He never caught a sophisticated country’s athlete. By sophisticated he means Eastern European and American. He purposely picked athletes from other countries. It didn’t just kind of happen. It was very clever picking. He didn’t just pick them out of a hat. It was a very prejudiced random.”

The random sampling procedure in drug testing is a sore point for many international athletes. Some complain federations single them out for testing. When athletes ask, officials say they were randomly selected. One athlete from Great Britain said that in the Olympic year she was repeatedly harassed through random selection.

The top four finishers at the Olympics faced mandatory tests. A selected number from the rest of the field took random tests.

Arturo Franz, the Chief Administrator of Medical Services for the LAOOC and the man who designed the sample collection procedure used in Los Angeles, said random selections need to be standardized.

“The random selection was not done scientifically,” he said. “There was a lot to be desired by the federation’s selection process. I think it needs to be standardized so that no athlete can say he was picked on. There are still some questions, but the LAOOC had no say over how the federations selected the random samples.”

Even as coaches and athletes scrambled to prepare for the Olympic doping control, the IOC-certified UCLA laboratory was rushing to assemble information on drugs not available in the United States, but likely to show up in tests. Catlin said the lab began processing samples in November 1983, about eight months before schedule.

“The USOC wanted to speed the process, because of Caracas,” Catlin said. “The problem we had was that many of the banned drugs, particularly the anabolics, are not available in this country. Cloestebol is an example. You’ve got to get it from another country, import it. If you have to get it from East Germany, you have all sorts of federal rules and regulations. Then once you get it, what are you going to do with it? You can’t give it to somebody because it’s not approved. So, how do I get a urine sample from somebody who has taken Cloestebol? If I don’t have that, I can’t build up my reference file.”

Catlin said he traded with directors of European labs to amass samples of drugs he was not familiar with. This familiarity was essential to enable lab technicians to recognize a banned drug.

Just when Catlin thought he was ahead of the game, the IOC changed the rules. A reluctant LAOOC agreed to test for excessive amounts of the hormone testosterone and the stimulant caffeine. Both Ueberroth and Dr. Anthony F. Daly, the LAOOC’s medical director, had stated publicly that they were not satisfied with the existing standards of testing for the two substances. In the case of testosterone, which is a naturally produced hormone, they argued that it would be difficult to establish acceptable levels to determine what is natural and what constitutes doping.

“We learned about the testosterone testing the day after our contract was signed,” Catlin said. “The timing was appropriate. The IOC provided us with the level. We were very concerned about that. We looked into the matter. We did 2,000 studies on our own. We were all concerned. We collected samples from users and coded them and put it through the lab. I will have recommendations for (adjusting) the levels, but not for a couple of months.”

As far as it is known, no athletes at the Los Angeles Games tested positive for either testosterone or caffeine. Testing for testosterone and caffeine was done at the 1983 world track and field championships in Helsinki and in Caracas.

Neither did any trace of so-called blocking drugs show up in any of the 1,740 samples the Olympic lab processed. Blocking drugs are preparations taken by athletes to hide or block out the presence of a banned drug in their system. Catlin says he has heard of athletes ingesting detergents to become “clean.”

“It’s all nonsense,” he said. “There’s nothing new in drugs, really. There are something like 84 steroids in the world. I can show you pictures (molecular structure), they all look the same. We’ve never found an unknown or secret drug. We know what’s going on. The idea of a blocking drug is absurd. I’ve heard many, many things that are used for blocking and some of them are worth a few giggles.”

Catlin said the only new area in drug use by athletes is the Human Growth Hormone, which last April was banned by the Food and Drug Administration. HGH is a naturally produced hormone that is responsible for all the body’s growth-related processes. Athletes favor the expensive drug because they believe it more effective than anabolic steroids, and, more important, because HGH is not on the IOC’s list of banned substances.

“The idea that every time you develop a new test, the athletes will come up with a new drug, I just don’t buy,” Catlin said. “Like HGH, the idea that it even did anything is open to question. People doing the testing wanted to develop a test on this, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

Despite Catlin’s outlook, it does seem the athletes are winning the war on drugs. While the testing machinery has not appreciably progressed in the past 10 years, the sophistication of the athletes, and their pharmacists, has risen steadily. What has changed is the attitude of sports officials. It is possible to measure the U.S. response to the drug problem on a pre-Caracas and post-Caracas scale.

In international sports circles, Americans have been known to be more adverse to drug testing than the Eastern Bloc. Few American athletes, unless they had competed in the Montreal Olympics, had ever undergone standard doping controls, whereas European athletes have been regularly tested in national and European competitions. Catlin suggested that the Soviet Union has one of the most aggressive testing programs for its athletes.

After the USOC announced its testing program following Caracas, Dr. Arnold Beckett of the IOC Medical Commission, chided the U.S. sports establishment for tardiness in addressing the problem the rest of the world had been struggling with.

“We are very pleased the Americans are beginning to move,” Beckett said. “They’ve been the biggest stumbling block internationally. Their national governing bodies have been so hypocritical. Any step to try to get them in line with everyone else will certainly meet with my approval.”

The USOC is not the only national governing body to formulate a testing program. The NCAA is considering a wide-ranging drug testing program, with a special eye to ferreting out recreational drug users. The IAAF announced last year it will not certify world records unless the athlete is tested for drugs following the performance.

Deterrence seems to be the most effective plan of attack to combat drug use. Drug education is another, as is providing athletes with alternative training methods to convince them performance enhancing drugs are not necessary.

But at the heart of the issue is not identifying what drugs the athletes take, or developing better tests. The central question remains the why of drug use among athletes. In that regard, the athletes and the sports administrators are as far from understanding each other as they have ever been.

“The athletes don’t want to take the darn drugs,” Catlin said. “They take them because they believe they have to to accomplish a (high) level in the sport. They don’t like them, they don’t get high on them. They’d all quit in the same day if they believed everyone else would quit.”

But this, from Dr. Robert Kerr, a San Gabriel sports medicine specialist who says he administers anabolic steroids to 4,000 athletes in 19 countries: “A newspaper reporter called me just after Caracas. He said he had spoken to elite track and field athletes in that area, a lot of them. He told them: ‘Suppose two things. Number one, you work out and take whatever you are going to take and you finish first or last or whatever. Or number two, we give you a drug that will guarantee that you will set a new world’s record, but you are going to die at the end of the year.’ He said: ‘Eighty per cent said they would take the second choice.’ I think that’s exaggerated, but it tells you something about the drive that athletes have.”