We are days away from the opening of yet another Olympic spectacle, the Beijing Games, and with arenas ready and athletes poised, there seems to be only one missing element.
A gold medal category for best pharmacist.
It’s not that the China Olympics are expected to be any more performance-enhanced than their predecessors. Just that the performance-enhancers are being chased harder now.
Jacques Rogge, the Belgian who is president of the International Olympic Committee, said he expected an increase in drug positives from the 26 at the Athens Games to about 40 in Beijing. His cops, WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) are on the case.
The recent history of the Olympics is a gradually opening curtain into the world of athletes and drugs.
In 1976, the best female swimmer in the world, California’s Shirley Babashoff, went to Montreal to win a bunch of gold medals and returned with one, for a relay. In her career of two Olympics, including 1972 in Munich, and two world championships, Babashoff won 13 silver medals and in 10 of those, the swimmer touching the wall before her was East German.
Eventually, at the Montreal Olympics, Babashoff spoke her mind. She said the East German women looked more like men and something wasn’t right. The media assumed sour grapes, nicknamed her “Surly Shirley,” and laughed it off. When East German officials were outed years later for systematic use of steroids, Babashoff was delivering mail in Huntington Beach and still feeling burned by the whole thing.
It turns out “Surly Shirley” was really “Smarter Shirley.”
Perhaps most unsettling was the saga of Marion Jones.
In the 2000 Games in Sydney, Jones had won three golds and two bronze medals. Her three golds were in the 100, 200 and 400 relay. Just before the 2004 Games in Athens, amidst constant speculation that her Sydney performance was enhanced, Jones met a gathering of Olympic reporters in New York. She angrily denied it all and left the impression that nobody who was actually cheating could have the audacity to lie so publicly and effectively.
Jones is now in jail in Texas for lying to a federal grand jury about her steroid use and for writing bad checks.
So, as the Beijing Games begin, that history fosters much skepticism. Can Rogge’s cops catch the rogue chemists?
Mark Sisson is a relatively new voice on this issue, at least to the general public.
He lives in Malibu, is 55, a former marathon runner and triathlete who finished fourth in the 1982 Ironman in Hawaii. He has been the executive director of the U.S. Triathlon Federation and, as chairman of the International Triathlon Union, spent 13 years overseeing its anti-doping program. He left triathlon organizations five years ago because officials felt his supplement-manufacturing business was a conflict of interest.
Sisson’s take on Olympic doping strays well off the beaten path.
“You can’t police this, you can’t adjudicate it,” he said, “nor can you ever get the level playing field they talk about. Plus, the performance levels set by federations for elite athletes are so high that they need some of the drugs that are banned just to maintain their health.”
Sisson said that the cops will always trail the criminals, that there is so much out there that drug detection and enforcement will never find it all.
“EPO [Erythropoetin] is a natural hormone produced by the body,” he said. “EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells. . . . Those cells carry the oxygen to the muscles where fuel can be burned.
“Artificial EPO is banned. Now here’s the irony:
“If you train at sea level and sleep at 14,000 feet, your body makes red cells at an impressive rate and amount. Now, several companies have developed expensive altitude chambers for home use, so you can train at sea level and then retire for the night, simulating an altitude of 14,000 feet.
“The end result is you have, within the letter of the law, manipulated your own EPO, yet using artificial EPO to do the same thing is punishable by a two-year suspension.”
Sisson said that people see a positive drug test as some sort of absolute, when it is far from it.
“These tests are wavy lines on sheets of graph paper interpreted by people with varying levels of expertise,” he said. “The public thinks it is like a pregnancy test. You either are or you’re not. It’s not like that.”
He said that athletes testing positive become like pariahs.
“They are not bad people,” he said. “They are not so much trying to cheat as they are trying to get the most out of their bodies. And the carrot held out, the gold medals and big money, drives them to push their bodies,” he said.
“What is so sad is that, even if they don’t cheat, they are working much harder than their body can take and ruining their health for later.”
Sisson said he isn’t going to Beijing, but will follow it on TV.
“These athletes are our modern-day gladiators,” he said. “What we see are fit people. The problem is, by the time they go through what they need to to get to the elite level of the Olympics, they aren’t healthy people and will pay for it in so many ways later in life.”
Sisson’s solution -- let the athletes take the drugs because they will be healthier that way than training themselves to death without them -- is unlikely to represent the wave of the future.
So expect in Beijing what we usually have: a steady stream of weightlifters and hammer-throwers, slinking off to the airport in the middle of the night before the word is out. Or, maybe a Ben Johnson or Marion Jones to spark huge headlines and three days of enraged media blather about the evils of cheating.
That, of course, will be followed by even bigger headlines and more blather about who wins the medal count.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at email@example.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.