Doping Fight Is Now a Positive

Times Staff Writer

In the first dozen days of the XIV Pan American Games, more than 7,000 athletes from 42 nations competing in 38 events have produced two positive test results, both for over-the-counter substances.

U.S. sprinter Mickey Grimes, gold medalist in the 100 meters, tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine, a banned substance, the Pan American Sports Organization announced Wednesday.

Earlier, Letitia Vriesde, Surinam's only athlete here, tested positive for excessive caffeine after winning the 800 meters and was stripped of her medal. She was said to have the equivalent of 5 gallons of coffee in her system, a PASO official said, and admitted her guilt.

Those revelations have barely caused a ripple on the shores of this island nation or anywhere else in the world. Compare that with 20 years ago, when the drug tests of the 1983 Pan Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela, produced a tsunami, generating waves of shock, humiliation and, ultimately, resolve to clean up an epidemic of performance-enhancing drug use, particularly steroids, among world-class athletes.

Thirty athletes tested positive, including 15 medalists, in the biggest drug bust in sports history.

And that might be only a modest number since many others avoided testing by leaving Caracas, faking injuries so that they wouldn't have to compete or purposely finishing out of the medals so that they could avoid testing.

"We've come a long way," said Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon research psychologist and consultant to the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Athletes know now we mean business. You'd better believe athletes know they are going to get tested as soon as competition starts. Or they may get tested outside of competition. Someone may knock on their door at 6 a.m. If you are going to compete, you have to play by the rules.

"So yeah, we have absolutely come a long, long way from Venezuela. With all the testing done [in the Dominican], thousand of samples, this is huge, huge progress."

Ungerleider said the nature of the drugs is also significantly different from those prevalent in Caracas.

"Both of these -- ephedrine and caffeine -- are in the stimulant family," he said. "But you can get caffeine in coffee. You can get ephedrine at any [convenience] store. When you put steroids in your body, you are making a pretty strong statement. You are saying, 'I have intent to dope. I have intent to cheat. I have intent to put performance-enhancing substances in my body.' There is no gray area there. With caffeine and ephedrine, there is some gray."

The amount of ephedrine detected in Grimes' test was 13.7 microliters. The allowable amount is 10.

If a second test, which Grimes is entitled to, is also positive today, he probably would be stripped of his medal, plus a second gold he won three days later in the 400-meter relay, and issued a warning by the International Assn. of Athletic Federations, which governs track and field. It is not expected that his participation in future events will be affected.

"I understand that athletes need to take responsibility for everything we put in our bodies," Grimes, who is from Colton, said in a statement. "I made a mistake and I know that my action carries with it a penalty. I sincerely regret letting down the U.S. delegation and my country, and I look forward to representing the United States in the future."

Although Grimes ran in the 100 a week ago, it wasn't until Sunday night that Roland Betts, head of the U.S. delegation, was informed of the test results. It was Monday morning before Betts located Grimes in Nice, France, and informed him of the positive reading.

"He seemed very surprised," Betts said. "He said the only thing he took was Vitamin C, but that wouldn't produce a positive."

USA Track and Field also issued a statement Wednesday, which read in part, "We have spoken to Mickey and we feel assured that he had no intention of gaining any competitive advantage. Mickey is one of our top young athletes, and he has learned an important and difficult lesson from his error."

There was no gray area before 1983, because there was virtually no honest testing, according to Robert Voy, then the chief medical officer for the USOC. Tests were referred to as "sink tests," because, without the means to properly do the job, he said, samples would simply be washed down the sink and negative results would be announced.

It might not have been much different in Caracas. Ten days before the Pan Am Games, the local organizing committee informed PASO it had neither the time nor the money to establish an effective drug-testing laboratory.

Enter German biochemist Manfred Donike.

With the use of a portable laboratory and technology that was ground-breaking for its time, Donike led a team of technicians from the Institute for Biochemistry at the German Sports University in Cologne to Caracas and pulled the covers off the rampant drug use on a world stage.

Although the body ingests the drugs and then breaks them down into various components, the methods used in 1983 were "100% accurate," said Voy, now the head of USA boxing.

"If you're looking for a fire engine," Voy said, "and you detect a truck, a hose, an ax, and a hook-and-ladder, you know you've got a firetruck. It was the same thing with those drugs. Our athletes were using drugs ranging from steroids to stimulants to recreational drugs."

Discovering the problem was one thing. Solving it proved quite another in the months and years that followed. While the USOC was willing to seek solutions, others within amateur sports organizations in the United States and officials in some other countries were not so quick to follow, according to Voy.

"Since there was no universal drug testing," he said, "our athletes would cooperate, but that would allow other athletes who didn't cooperate to beat the tar out of them."

And it wasn't just a matter of administering tests and punishing those who came up positive.

"We ran into all sorts of things we didn't anticipate," Voy said. "There were legal claims. There were issues about the chain of custody of test results. There were no teeth in the program. It was so bad in some countries, I couldn't trust the doctors who administered the tests."

Even now, problems remain, he said.

"A method of detecting a drug called EPO [an oxygen booster that speeds blood to muscles] has still not been perfected," Voy said.

Ed Ryan, medical coordinator for the USOC, says ongoing research is doing much to improve EPO detection.

"There is still no way to detect the human-growth hormone," Voy said. "And we still haven't determined the clearance rate for anabolic steroids. For example, for three months, you get your body juiced up on steroids, you get your strength to the peak you want, and you know that, if you stop using it 10 days before you might be tested, the drug will leave your system and you'll have a negative test result. The clearance rates are still a big problem."

The problems figure to decrease in the future because of an anti-doping code agreed to in March by more than 150 nations. It is hoped that most, if not all, of the sports federations will also sign on before next year's Olympics, giving U.S. athletes assurance they are not handicapped by following rules others don't adhere to.

"We're still behind the cheaters," Ryan said. "Cheaters are always trying to find new ways to cheat. But we are working very hard and making progress at a very rapid pace."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°