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Commentary : New Rules for Testing Are Needed

Times Staff Writer

The board of directors of The Athletics Congress, the governing body for track and field in the United States, will take a historic vote today at a meeting in Indianapolis.

If it goes as expected, track and field will become the first sport in the United States to approve a random, unannounced drug-testing program for athletes in training.

Civil libertarians will protest, but people who are concerned about the effect that anabolic steroids and other banned substances have had on the sport, not to mention the health of athletes, recognize that it will take drastic, even intrusive, action to resolve the problem.

If it is too much to ask of an athlete to submit to a urinalysis after 24 or 48 hours’ notice, then perhaps the athlete should find another field. That is not a suggestion just from antiquated, moralizing officials, but from the athletes who sit on TAC’s advisory board.

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Most athletes, including many who use steroids because they believe they cannot be competitive without them, want drugs eliminated from the sport.

They realize that it cannot be done by continuing to rely on testing after competition. The drug users are too sophisticated. In five major international meets since 1980, including three Olympic Games and two world championships, only four athletes tested positive for steroids or other strength-inducing drugs. Ben Johnson passed 19 tests in three years before he was caught for a using steroid at the 1988 Summer Games.

But the institution of a random, unannounced testing program is not the solution unless it is administered honestly. For that reason, TAC should enlist the services of Dr. Robert O. Voy.

Unfortunately, that is about as likely to happen as John Tower inviting Sen. Sam Nunn to a cocktail party.

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One of the reasons Voy, 55, resigned last week as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief medical officer was his ongoing disagreement with TAC’s executive director, Ollan Cassell, and officials of other sports. Even if they agreed with him that drugs are eroding the Olympic movement, they did not believe that he should announce it to the world.

So they killed the messenger.

Voy was not fired, or even asked to resign, but he believed that he was rendered ineffective when USOC officials no longer took him into their counsel.

“My regret for the Olympic committee and the (sport’s) leadership was that they were unable to take the heat from what I was saying--having an honest and factual basis for my statements--rather than muzzle, criticize or degrade me,” Voy told the Chicago Tribune. “My object was not to point fingers but to alert people there were problems.”

In fairness to the USOC, Voy had a machine-gun approach to public speaking that often sent even innocent bystanders running for cover.

When he said that he knew of positive drug tests in all but two U.S. sports--figure skating and women’s field hockey--he did not mean that synchronized swimmers are bulking up on steroids. They might have been guilty of nothing more than taking cold tablets that had a banned substance as an ingredient. In that case, he was guilty not of saying too much, but too little.

To the consternation of the media, he also did not always supply the evidence to go along with his damning statements. Sometimes he admitted that he did not have it. Sometimes he had it but was bound by his contract to conceal it. As his primary target seemed to be track and field, he and Cassell tangled.

Ironically, as Voy began to clean out his desk at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, he was vindicated by revelations in the first two weeks of the track and field phase of the Canadian government’s inquiry into drug use by athletes.

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In eight days of extraordinary testimony, Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, detailed extensive drug use by his athletes and implicated virtually everyone who has laced on spikes in the last two decades. He said that he believes 80% of the athletes at the highest levels of the sport have used anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

As Voy has in the past, Francis speculated that positive drug tests in international competition have been suppressed by officials. He also said he suspects that random, unannounced testing programs already established in other countries have been ineffective because their administrators are not as serious about stopping drug use as they are about protecting the sport’s image.

“We’re awash in a sea of denials,” he said.

Sure enough, denials from officials in the countries that he implicated, including the Soviet Union, arrived here in roughly the time it takes to make an international phone call.

Most of the denials had a similar theme: How is it possible to believe Francis, someone now who encouraged his athletes to cheat, supplied them with drugs and then lied about it for almost 10 years?

That is a point well taken. Although his attention to detail, his articulate delivery and his recall through 29 hours of exhaustive testimony were impressive on the witness stand, Francis’ 21-year-old fiancee was probably the only one in the hearing room who believed everything he said.

But we should all listen when Voy speaks. Coming from opposite ends of the spectrum, he and Francis have arrived at many of the same conclusions. Although Francis’ credibility may be in question, Voy’s is not. Not only did his integrity remain intact through five years with the USOC, it was never challenged.

TAC needs Voy. That is not to say that TAC will have a dishonest drug testing program without him. But with him, it will be beyond suspicion. And after Francis’ testimony, who in the track and field world can say that?

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