Voy Is Still a Doctor With a Cause : USOC’s Beleagered Drug Czar Fighting a Losing Battle
He has been eluded by athletes who continue to flout the system, excluded by administrators who believe that he should hold his tongue, and deluded by his faith in a science that has failed to overcome the drug problem in sports.
Five years after he became the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Voy may soon hang up his beakers and return to private practice.
And although no one doubts his commitment to the cause of eliminating performance-enhancing drugs from sports or his competency in the laboratory, the USOC’s leadership seems to be evenly divided on whether the outspoken Voy should be encouraged to remain.
Considering his opinions regarding the leadership, some of which emerged during an interview in his office last week at the USOC’s headquarters here, he joked that a request for his resignation would represent a relatively light reprimand.
“They would probably hang me if they knew my true feelings,” he said.
He consented to the interview only after it had been cleared with the USOC’s executive director, Baaron Pittenger. Surrounded by memorabilia from his career, including two urine-sample vials mounted on a plaque, Voy, 55, appeared comfortable. But he stopped himself several times in mid-sentence to either rephrase a thought, making it less inflammatory, or to change the subject entirely.
“You’re going to have to forgive me if I couch a lot of what I’m going to say,” he said. “I’m going to be perfectly up-front with you, but I am in a position in which I don’t know what my longevity is within this organization.
“In this kind of organization, you can’t step on anybody’s feet and expect to survive. Others have been in that position and have not survived. My personal conviction is that I don’t mind either way. I intend to speak my piece, but I’d like to go out on the basis of resigning and not being fired.”
During the next 2 1/2 hours, Voy outlined his frustrations:
--Although doctors have narrowed the gap, athletes who use anabolic steroids still have the lead. Instead of acting as a deterrent, increased testing has sent athletes in search of drugs that either are not on the banned list or that disappear quickly from the system.
Even Ben Johnson’s suspension had a reverse effect, serving as an advertisement to athletes that steroids can help create super athletes.
--Through lenient penalties, reported collusion between some officials and athletes and even malfeasance in some laboratories, the leadership at all levels of national and international sports has sent a message that it is not serious about combatting drugs.
--Because he has not been diplomatic when addressing imperfections in the system, he said that he was told last summer by USOC officials to tone down his comments. Since then, he said that he has felt like the odd man out in the USOC’s drug-testing program, which he is supposed to oversee.
For example, he said that he was not asked to join a USOC team that is negotiating a drug-testing agreement with the Soviet Union.
“It puts me into a position where I’m not doing effective things,” he said. “I’m doing the work, but my creativity, my innovation and my enthusiasm certainly aren’t what they used to be.”
Voy’s critics contend that his effectiveness waned earlier, when he lost the trust of many National Governing Bodies (NGBs), which are responsible for Olympic sports.
That is most apparent in Voy’s other responsibility, USOC research and development projects. He recently received the unkindest cut of all when his proposed budget for the next quadrennium in that area was slashed dramatically.
Pittenger said that the NGBs believe the department has not produced, adding that Voy could have the funds restored if he does a better selling job.
But whereas research and development may ultimately be more important to Olympic athletes, it is Voy’s performance as the drug czar that stirred controversy.
In the most publicized incident, Ollan Cassell, executive director of The Athletics Congress (TAC), the national governing body for track and field, confronted Voy at a meeting of international sports leaders in Colorado Springs in October, 1987. A heated exchange, in full view of reporters, ensued.
In a speech to the group, Voy had suggested that officials in some sports suppress results of positive drug tests to avoid negative publicity. At a subsequent news conference, Voy voiced his suspicions about two 1987 track meets, the World Championships in Rome and the U.S. national meet in San Jose.
Although cynicism about drug testing at major international track meets is common in the media, particularly in Europe, it was the first time that an official of Voy’s stature had publicly admitted his doubts. But even one inclined to agree with him had to be disappointed that he either would not or could not present evidence to support his skepticism.
Voy ran afoul of TAC again last summer, when he revealed during a media seminar in Colorado Springs that an unspecified number of track and field athletes had tested positive during the Olympic trials. Although Voy was not specific, the impression left with reporters was that the athletes had used anabolic steroids. That was reflected in the reporters’ stories.
A few days later, after much media speculation about a track scandal, the USOC announced that a number of athletes had tested positive for small amounts of stimulants, such as those found in common over-the-counter cold medications, and had been cleared in hearings because the use was ruled to be inadvertent.
The press was criticized for reporting the initial story without more specifics but USOC officials ultimately blamed Voy. USOC President Robert Helmick said that Voy is not authorized to discuss the results of drug tests until after athletes have had hearings.
“It’s the same as a grand jury making an investigation,” he said. “There has to be absolute secrecy until the process is complete. The principle is very clear.”
Voy made a number of enemies at that seminar, offending other NGBs when he said that only two sports, figure skating and women’s field hockey, had never produced a positive drug test. Again, NGB officials thought that he should have been more specific and explained that he was not referring to steroids in every case.
“The purpose of the program is supposed to be educational, not someone saying, ‘Nyah, nyah, nyah, you’re on drugs,’ ” said Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. “By misrepresenting what’s happening out there, he’s not being respectful to the athletes.”
After several NGBs had complained, Voy received a message from USOC officials.
“All that one of the NGBs has to do is complain or say, ‘I want Voy to shut up,’ and that happens automatically,” Voy said. “There’s no review. Nobody says, ‘What did you do and why did you do it? Are you right or wrong?’ No, it’s just, ‘Let’s shut him up.’ ”
Expressing his support for Voy, Pittenger said that the USOC has shown its confidence in Voy’s drug-testing program by “considerably enhancing” his budget in that area for the next quadrennium. But Pittenger said that he has met with little success in his attempt to intervene on Voy’s behalf with the indignant NGBs.
“Sometimes you can express things to people, and they don’t accept your position,” Pittenger said.
Voy has not lost all NGB support.
Jerry Lace, executive director of the U.S. Cycling Federation, said that, because of Voy’s expertise, the USOC is “on the cutting edge of drug testing” in the world. He also said that he appreciates Voy’s candor.
“I’m an advocate of saying that we shouldn’t keep things under our collars,” he said.
Another supporter is F. Don Miller, former executive director of the USOC. He hired Voy in January, 1984, as the USOC’s first full-time chief medical officer in response to the drug scandal at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela.
“The man in that position has to possess the highest degree of integrity,” Miller said. “Bob Voy does. He is extremely honest. As far as being outspoken, everything that I’ve read that he’s said has been accurate.
“It should be recognized that the person in that position has to make statements about the pros and cons of the program. I feel sorry for the NGBs if they don’t recognize that. But even if he sold his soul, he wouldn’t make everyone happy.”
Voy said that the USOC misses Miller’s leadership.
“My hat’s off to F. Don Miller, who was shocked by the whole drug problem in 1983 and took the right step,” Voy said. “From that day, the program has been effective. But there’s been a constant erosion in the authority of that program by the (NGBs).
“Please don’t make this statement sound like it’s an accusation about their integrity. It’s the reality of the sports world. If the competition has a performance-enhancement from a drug, the leadership of the sport may really feel that it’s wrong.
“But the success of sport in this country is based on success. The guy in the tavern drinking a beer and watching the television wants us to win. And so does the sponsor.
“That’s why we need strong leadership. Right now, it doesn’t exist in the USOC, and it doesn’t exist in the IOC (International Olympic Committee). The problem with leadership in sports in this country is that it’s politically based. Maybe that’s what life is. Maybe I’m too much of an idealist.”
Pittenger, who has been the executive director since January, did not seem to take Voy’s criticisms personally.
“Bob talks to the athletes every day, and I think his comments reflect their frustrations,” he said.
Voy confirmed that the athletes who are clean--and he said that includes a large majority in most sports--are frustrated.
“We’ve played nice guys to the sports administrations when athletes are saying, ‘Please do something,”’ Voy said. “Athletes who talk to me are saying, ‘We’re fed up with this. We’re being cheated. There’s no point in us being world-class athletes because we can’t stay off the juice and still win.’ ”
Voy said that he cannot assure them otherwise, adding that there is at least one masking agent, a substance that hides traces of steroids in the system, commonly used by athletes today that cannot be detected.
“I’ve been part of the problem,” he said. “I thought that testing after competitions would work. I know now that it doesn’t work. You can’t announce testing and deter drug use.
“Not all of the money we’ve spent on testing in the last 5 years has been wasted. We’ve stopped a limited use of stimulants and protected a lot of health on that basis. But we haven’t stopped the steroid problem. The reality of it is that we haven’t done the job.
“Ben Johnson wasn’t a shocker to me. It’s just a surprise that he got caught. As far as gaining the attention of the sports, it was good from that standpoint. But is it going to decrease steroid use? Not at all.
“If anything, it’s going to increase drug use. It’s now been demonstrated that the fastest man in the world uses steroids.”
Asked if he still believes that some sports are less than vigilant in their drug programs, Voy said, “It depends on who does the testing.”
To avoid such suspicions, he has joined numerous athletes in calling for testing conducted by agencies that are independent of sports organizations.
“If somebody suspected my business of being unsound, I’m not going to do an internal audit,” he said. “I’m going to hire Arthur Anderson to do an independent audit.”
Since there are no agencies conducting independent drug tests, Voy said that he might like to start one some time. But, for now at least, he has a job.
“I have mixed emotions,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to leave the USOC, but I do want to be effective. I’ll let you know if I quit. I’d like to battle it a little more.”