Drugs and Sports: A New Arena for Drug Reformers? 9/17/04

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special to Drug War Chronicle, by Steve Beitler -- first in an occasional series on drugs and sports

On February 12, Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press event to announce indictments for alleged distribution of steroids and money laundering. That day he did more than spotlight a high-profile case. Ashcroft deftly opened a new front in the war on drugs, implementing a strategy that President Bush had signaled three weeks earlier. In a State of the Union address that didn't mention AIDS, America's obesity pandemic, or worldwide growth in previously unknown viruses, Bush found room to say, "The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message -- that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character."

The events leading up to Ashcroft's press conference began in June 2003, when a track coach anonymously sent a used syringe to the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). USADA is the American arm of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which the International Olympic Committee set up in 1999 as an independent group chartered with ridding the Olympics and the global circuit of elite track and field, cycling and other Olympic sports of the deeply entrenched use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The USADA lab in southern California identified the substance on the syringe as tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, a previously unknown steroid. USADA announced its discovery, saying several athletes had tested positive for THG, and described a Burlingame, California firm, the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), as a "likely source." A week later, a spectacular grand jury investigation began, featuring testimony from track star Marion Jones, who won five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics, and baseball megastar Barry Bonds.

Bonds's personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was one of four people named in Ashcroft's indictments; all four had strong ties to BALCO. Founded in the early 1980s by Victor Conte, a former member of the funk band Tower of Power, BALCO produced legal supplements that won favor with world-class athletes. The feds claim that BALCO also provided illegal drugs, including steroids that were designed to enhance performance and to evade drug tests.

Ashcroft's indictments were the most public expression to date of the growing ties between the effort to "clean up" sports and the larger drug war. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that in 2003, USADA received nearly $7 million -- more than half its total budget ­ in a grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the office headed by the "drug czar." That was an excellent return on the investment of between $60,000 and $100,000 that, according to lobbying reports, USADA had made in 2003 with the American Continental Group, a Washington law firm with strong ties to the Republican Party, to help lobby Congress and the White House for federal money.

Last April, the Senate Commerce Committee subpoenaed Justice Department documents related to the BALCO case. A month later the committee, chaired by Arizona Republican John McCain, decided to turn over evidence in the BALCO investigation to USADA to help that group in its quest to keep athletes who had used performance-enhancing drugs off the US team that went to Athens for the recently completed Olympics.

The renewed fervor to make sports "drug free" raises philosophical and strategic questions for the reform movement. What do the links between the sports crusade and the war on drugs portend for the future of the drug war? Do ideas like harm reduction and responsible use apply to sports? Or is sports an exception in which zero tolerance is the right goal? What would an above-ground, regulated drug regime in sports look like? Finally, what can a reform perspective bring to the debate about drugs and sports?

Like their counterparts who tackle the destructive fantasy of a "drug-free America," some scholars are questioning the widely accepted notion that sports have to be free of drugs to be fair. "Sport is the province of the genetic elite, or freak. Taking drugs would make sports less of a genetic lottery," according to Prof. Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy of Oxford University. They cite with approval former Australian track Olympian Raelene Boyle, who said, "Far from being against the spirit of sport, biological manipulation embodies the human spirit -- the capacity to change ourselves on the basis of reason and judgment." Savulescu and Foddy see no difference between elevating your red blood cell count (which boosts oxygen delivery to the muscles, a desirable event in endurance sports) by training at altitude, using an air machine that simulates altitude training, or taking erythropoietin, a popular drug with cyclists.

Dissenters from the orthodox view also point to the long history of ingenuity by athletes seeking an advantage. Greek athletes in the ancient Olympics downed sheep testicles to boost testosterone levels, a daunting precursor of today's steroids, which build strength in the same way. Charles Yesalis of Penn State University, who has studied steroids for more than 20 years, said that "perhaps the most profound effect that BALCO is having... is debunking the (message) that sports federations have fed (people) for 30 years, that there's only a few bad apples in the barrel. There's only a few good apples in the barrel."

Such heresy is unthinkable to the international sports establishment. US baseball commissioner Bud Selig has set "zero tolerance" for steroids as the goal, and Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track and Field, that sport's governing body, noted that "there's no turning back from this. We've got to embrace this fight." In its zeal to "win" against drugs, sports officials have embraced drug testing as their main weapon and are deploying it in ways that could portend its use beyond sports. USADA has increased drug tests by nearly 100 percent over the last four years, reported the New York Daily News, in part by implementing an anytime, anywhere, no-notice policy. Tara Nott Cunningham, a US weightlifter who won a gold medal in Sydney, is one of about 3,200 elite athletes who receive regular visits from USADA doping control officers, or DCO's. Cunningham estimates that she has taken about 100 tests, the scheduling of which is made easier because USADA requires athletes to submit a quarterly Athlete Location Form. The form spells out where the athlete will be every day for a three-month period. Despite its faith in testing, USADA goes further. Its charter gives it the right to sanction athletes without a positive drug test.

USADA's zest for tests could soon be trumped by a fast-approaching new frontier of performance enhancement. Gene therapy and transfer techniques are showing great promise in enabling scientists to build muscle and increase the production of red blood cells, with potentially dramatic implications for people who suffer from muscular dystrophy and other diseases. The same methods could make athletes better at what they do. Since some of these methods increase the amount of substances that our bodies produce naturally, drug testing would face a fresh challenge. How could it tell what was natural and what wasn't?

Many aspects of drug use by athletes, and the attempts to stamp out drug use in sports, parallel what reformers have seen in the larger war on drugs. In the US, the enlistment of the nation's leading drug warriors in the crusade to "clean up" sports is an ominous new theater of the drug war. Reformers will increasingly be challenged to engage or to watch from the sidelines.

-- END --
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Issue #354, 9/17/04 Editorial: What Is It About Opium? | Canada Cannabis Cauldron Bubbling Again | DEA Brings Traveling "Drugs = Terror" Exhibit to NYC as City Commemorates 9/11 Anniversary | Drugs and Sports: A New Arena for Drug Reformers? | Newsbrief: In Gotham Shocker, New York Post Calls for Repeal of Rockefeller Laws | Newsbrief: Drug Reformer Challenger Defeats Hard-Line District Attorney in Albany, New York | Newsbrief: Yes, Four Ounces of Marijuana at Home is Legal, Says Alaska Supreme Court | Newsbrief: Drug Czar Attacks Oregon Medical Marijuana Initiative | Newsbrief: Oakland Poll Shows Strong Support for Legalization of Marijuana | Newsbrief: South Africa to Reject Marijuana Decriminalization | Newsbrief: More Drug Executions in Iran, Saudi Arabia | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Mexico Shuts Down Three "Youth Treatment" Centers, Deports Kids Back to US | The Reformer's Calendar
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