In a Barry McCaffrey fever dream come true, America's world-class chess players will soon be getting drug tests before every tournament. Three years ago in an article in Chess Life magazine, the then drug czar proposed drug testing for tournament chess players. McCaffrey met with ridicule at the time, but over the weekend, the US Chess Federation, meeting at its annual conference in Framingham, Massachusetts, voted to make drug testing of chess players a reality.
The move came as the US chess group faced increasing pressure from the International Chess Federation (FIDE -- Federation Internationale des Eschecs) to institute drug testing as part of its bid for recognition of chess as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC requires such testing for any sport seeking its recognition.
The FIDE contends that some substances -- caffeine, amphetamines, Ritalin, and steroids -- could provide players with a competitive advantage and has already begun testing players in other countries. Players at tournaments in Argentina and Spain have been tested for all of the IOC's banned substances, including amphetamines, steroids and beta blockers. Those tests came back negative. The FIDE also regulates caffeine consumption; testing at higher than allowable levels can result in disqualification.
The US Chess Federation vote to approve drug testing overcame a rebellion in the ranks led by US champion Joel Benjamin. Benjamin cosponsored two of three failed motions seeking to prohibit drug testing of American players. He told the Metrowest Daily News (Framingham, Massachusetts) that the other top American players he has spoken with are also opposed to drug testing, and he doubted whether any of the substances had real performance enhancing effects for tournament chess players.
"Drugs like amphetamines are more effective in things like a race," he said. "Taking those drugs and concentrating for hours at a time, it's more likely that's going to hurt you. But the thing I'm really concerned about is that this whole thing will go overboard."
The chessnews.com web site also provided arguments against drug testing: "While the humiliation some players might suffer from taking the drug test is an issue, probably even more significant is the Pandora's box opened when chess players can be disqualified for drinking too much coffee, using asthma inhalers, taking certain vitamin supplements, or eating bagels with poppy seeds," the site noted. "There is no evidence that such substances, or even illegal drugs, give a player an unfair advantage at chess."
Even a US Chess Federation delegate to the FIDE was no fan of testing. "It absolutely registers as ridiculous," said James Leade. "What, human growth hormones so we can bang the clock harder?" But Dr. Stephen Press, vice chairman of the FIDE Medical Commission, defended testing as a political necessity during his keynote address, "The Future of Chess as an Olympic Event." If the federation refused to allow testing, Press told Metrowest Daily News, "FIDE would have to determine whether to expel the US because... the Olympic movement requires that all nations conform. There's no exceptions."
He admitted that the idea of drug testing chess players sounded silly, but those are the rules, he told the newspaper. FIDE will not test for alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs, he said. As for caffeine: "We're not saying that you can't drink coffee. It's not a banned substance; it's a regulated substance. There's no reason that you can't drink. The only problem (a player) will run into with coffee, cocoa, colas, or Mountain Dew, or Jolt is if they have a problem of abusing it."
While organized chess organizations are willing to sacrifice the privacy of American tournament chess players in favor of Olympian dreams, that sacrifice may well be in vain. While the FIDE hopes to turn chess into an Olympic sport -- it has applied for recognition from the IOC as a first step -- an IOC spokeswoman last week told the Associated Press there was no chance of adding chess in 2004. The IOC's Emmanuelle Moreau also noted that the Olympics will not add new sports unless others drop out, and at least a dozen other sports want to become Olympic events. That group includes fin swimming, surfing, and billiards, all of which involve some form of physical activity.
Some IOC officials question whether chess is even a sport. "We always thought that sport should involve some element of physical skill," IOC Canadian member Dick Pound told the AP. He said chess was unlikely to gain a place at the Olympics.