Litmus Test for Drug Policy

From Associated Press

After decades of dithering and disarray in the fight against performance-enhancing drugs, sports and government officials finally have come up with a global anti-doping program.

Whether they can agree on the details and put the plan into practice remains to be seen.

Divisive issues still need to be resolved when Olympic and political leaders open a three-day conference in Copenhagen on Monday to consider approval of the "World Anti-Doping Code."

The 53-page document, drawn up by the World Anti-Doping Agency, sets out uniform drug-testing rules, procedures and sanctions to be applied across all sports and countries.

Some sports, including soccer and cycling, refuse to accept two-year drug suspensions as mandated in the code. European governments and sports bodies are threatening to withhold support because the code doesn't cover U.S. pro leagues.

And critics say the whole exercise won't make a difference anyway.

"I could make a very strong argument that all we are still doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Charles Yesalis, a doping expert at Penn State.

WADA was set up by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 following the drug scandals that rocked the Tour de France cycling race a year earlier. The Montreal-based body, headed by IOC member and Canadian lawyer Dick Pound, is governed 50-50 by the sports movement and public authorities.

Pound said he expects the code to be approved by sports bodies and enacted in time for next year's Athens Olympics. But governments, which still must find an international formula for applying the code, have been given until the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, to sign up.

"This code will ensure a playing field that is level around the world," Pound said. "Whether you are in Australia, or China, Nairobi or New York City, the same rules are going to apply to you, the same standards are going to apply to you."

The code establishes a single list of prohibited substances, ranging from steroids to stimulants to blood-boosting hormones. It also bans any form of genetic doping.

Substances will be placed on the banned list if they meet at least two of three criteria: they are performance enhancing, they pose a health risk or they violate the "spirit of sport."

The code upholds the Olympics' "strict liability" policy, meaning athletes are responsible for any banned substance in their body regardless of how it got there.

Athletes failing drug tests at the Olympics or other competitions will automatically be disqualified and lose any medals.

However, the code allows for some flexibility in longer-term sanctions in case of "unintentional" doping violations and "exceptional circumstances."

If athletes can prove they were not at fault for a positive test, suspensions can be reduced or waived. This could include cases where athletes ingested a banned substance unwittingly in a cold tablet.

The code calls for fixed two-year suspensions for a first serious doping infraction, including steroid use. A second violation would lead to a life ban.

Most Olympic federations are ready to accept the two-year penalty, but at least two sports with highly paid pro athletes -- soccer and cycling -- continue to resist. They maintain that two-year suspensions are a virtual life ban in some sports, and that federations risk costly lawsuits from athletes who contest the ban in court.

"We will not budge when it comes to that issue," FIFA medical chief Michel D'Hooghe said. "If they want to force this down our throat, it just won't work."

But Pound said WADA won't back down, noting that most sports agreed on two-year bans at a world doping conference in 1999.

"It's not going to go any farther," he said in an interview. "Backing away from two years would be very unproductive and would not be popular. There has to be some compromise."

U.S. pro leagues are at the heart of the other main dispute. The NBA, NHL and major league baseball are only "encouraged" to accept the code because they are not under the jurisdiction of international federations or national governments.

"We cannot have the Europeans applying the rules and the Americans disregarding them," European Union Sports Commissioner Viviane Reding said.

Hein Verbruggen, head of the international cycling union, wrote Pound criticizing the exemption of pro leagues as "absolutely unbelievable."

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