Feature: The Olympics Meets the War on Drugs 2/24/06

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The agony and the ecstasy of competition at the Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, has been overshadowed by a dramatic escalation of the sporting world's war on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, or doping, as the practice is commonly known. On Saturday night and again on Monday, Olympic officials joined hands with Italian police and prosecutors to raid the quarters of the Austrian biathlon and cross-county skiing teams in raids that appeared straight out of the US drug war.

Olympic anti-doping agency
As television news cameras peered through the windows of the Alpine chalets housing the Austrians, Italian police and Olympic officials questioned athletes and submitted them to on-the-spot drug tests, searched the buildings, and seized "suspicious" medications, equipment, and hypodermic syringes that authorities said could have been used in blood doping, or boosting an athlete's red blood cell count prior to competition. Austrian skiing coach Walter Mayer, whose presence with the team after being banned for doping offenses during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics set off the raids, was resting in an Austrian psychiatric hospital this week after fleeing Italy and crashing into a police roadblock just inside the Austrian border Sunday.

While Mayer's bizarre odyssey has captured the media spotlight, it is the unprecedented involvement of police in the Olympic anti-doping effort that is raising eyebrows and concerns in the sporting world and beyond. Olympic and anti-doping officials and Italian authorities, though, were unapologetic.

"It's the first time to my knowledge that sports authorities and public authorities have acted to try to get at a doping situation," said Dick Pound, head of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency, the international body charged with enforcing rules against the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Busting athletes in the glare of the Olympic spotlight creates "a deterrent effect out there for everybody to see."

It was WADA who noticed Mayer's presence and notified the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in turn sicced the Italian cops on the Austrians, the IOC said in a Saturday statement. "The IOC can also confirm that it transmitted the WADA report to the Italian authorities for their information and subsequent follow-up as they deem appropriate," the group confessed.

"That Mayer was in the same area as the athletes created quite some concern for us," the IOC's medical commission chief Arne Ljungqvist told reporters. Holding up an official postcard featuring a photograph of the Austrian biathlon team which included Mayer, Ljungqvist said: "This is reason enough to act."

"The IOC has always been clear in saying that fighting doping in sports is for the sports authorities, and at the Games for the IOC. But a wider collaborative approach between the world of sports and the world of governments clearly gives a stronger result," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies elaborated.

"Clearly, an intervention like this can inevitably cause a bit of disturbance, but we are using the least-invasive methods possible," Turin chief prosecutor Marcello Maddalena told reporters with a straight face. "The intervention of the judicial authorities is necessary because sports authorities are not self-sufficient."

Despite some IOC reluctance to claim credit for the raid, Italian police said the organization had been fully aware of what was going on. "The operation took place in full cooperation with the IOC, which at the same time tested several athletes for doping. This was done with maximum discretion and without any inconvenience," police said in a statement.

That the winter Olympic games are taking place in Italy only made the resort to local criminal justice authorities more likely. The conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has signaled a hard line on drug-taking in any context. Last month, it passed a bill that would erase a decade-old distinction between "soft" and "hard" drugs and increase prison sentences for drug offenders. The drug measure was passed as part of an Olympic security bill. Italian authorities had also loudly warned that Olympic doping violations could and would be treated as criminal offenses under Italian law.

Still, concern and unhappiness over treating star athletes like common criminals was rising. The Austrians, naturally, were especially upset. Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel conceded that Mayer should have stayed home, but lashed out at the Italians.

"It was not right for the carbinieri [Italian police] to come in the night before a competition and pull young athletes out of bed like criminals and interrogate them for five hours," he said.

Austrian State Secretary for Sports Karl Schweitzer agreed. "The whole thing was badly handled. Our athletes were treated like serious criminals," he told Reuters in Vienna.

Austrian skiers, whose cross-country effort crashed and burned the day after the Saturday night raids, were bitter and demoralized. "I didn't get to race," said team member Johannes Eder. "With 20 policemen standing in your bedroom in the middle of the night, how can you compete?" Eder told Reuters as he walked away from the course.

"The mood is shit. Everybody's feeling down because of yesterday," Austrian ski federation spokesman Erich Wagner said before the race which was won by an Italian quartet.

But concern wasn't limited to the aggrieved Austrians. "This has been greeted as some sort of important breakthrough in the so-called war on drugs," said Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media, and sport at the University of Staffordshire in England and a well-known critic of the call for ever tighter controls on doping. "But for me, it's a massive case of overkill and what you might call 'the criminalization of sport.' If this sort of thing continues," he told DRCNet, "it could spell the end of sport as we know it."

"I have real mixed feelings about this," said University of Texas doping expert John Hoberman, author of last year's "Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping," among other works on the subject. "I have a history of opposing doping in sports, but for the 21 years of Juan Samaranch's reign at the IOC, the anti-doping was basically for show. It was ineffective and sabotaged from within by numerous sports officials in charge of federations. Some were dishonest and others were basically in office to enjoy the perks that accompanied their posts."

Things changed in the aftermath of the 1998 Tour de France scandal, where the Festina team was kicked off the tour after customs officials at the France-Belgium border discovered banned substances in one of the team's support cars. The US sporting establishment has also shown heightened concern over doping in the aftermath of the BALCO scandal, where the laboratory was cooking up new, undetectable performance-enhancers for star athletes.

The Tour de France scandal was a turning point in the approach of global athletics to doping, said Hoberman. "That led to the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2000, and it initiated a new, more serious era of doping control. If you care about doping, the aggressive tactics of the last few years have to be seen in relation to the many years of ineffectual enforcement that came before."

But those aggressive tactics have grated on athletes, Hoberman said. "They've been putting people in disguise, springing urine sample cups on athletes, and in Italy in particular, the cops have done raid after raid in cycling. The athletes are always upset when the cops come and search their rooms. What the raids this week in Turin did was bring Italian anti-doping tactics straight out of the cycling world to the world of Olympic sports," he told DRCNet.

"Clearly, the negative side to this is bringing the war on drugs into the sporting world in a new kind of way," said Hoberman. "I have big problems with the way the American war on drugs, sponsored mainly by the Republican Party ever since Nixon, is carried out. There is a mindlessness and cruelty to the drug war that ought to be opposed, so when I see something similar to drug war zealotry infused into what is in theory a defensible anti-doping project, I worry that this will be taken too far by some people," Hoberman said.

That is a concern highlighted by Cashmore, who argues that law enforcement should have no role in sports doping. "Since when should the police be involved in what are, after all, sports issues?" Cashmore asked. "The Italian law permits this and even calls for two-year prison sentences. What kind of sporting world is it where people can get locked up for seeking a competitive edge? Why not lock them up for wearing contact lenses in shooting competitions or getting hypnotherapy to deal with the stress associated with competition?"

That view won support from some people not usually concerned with Olympic affairs, the European NGO Coalition for a Just and Effective Drug Policy. "It is interesting to see this little corner of the war on drugs. This is the only time TV viewers from around the world can simultaneously witness the absurdity of this war," said ENCOD's Joep Oomen. "Hardly anyone doubts that many athletes are using 'something,' so it seems a matter of luck that someone is caught. These sports federations should take responsibility and find a humane system of regulating this. At least now athletes will realize that without ending this war on drugs, they will remain potential victims of both the pharmaceutical industries and the legal authorities."

While Olympic sports is usually not center-stage on ENCOD's agenda, the Turin incident raises concerns, said Oomen. "This is an example of the logic of drug prohibition," he said. "If you stopped prohibiting drugs in sports, you could create a system of regulation for athletes that would allow them to use them in a controlled way, with an emphasis on the prevention of health risks. People would then dope openly, which would probably demystify many sports heroes, but if would reduce the harm."

Ideas like that run up against notions of cheating and fairness in competition and distaste for artificially-enhanced athletic achievement, but Cashmore said perhaps people should think again. The distinction between doping and other forms of preparing for competition is artificial, he suggested.

"Let's say four teams of long distance skiers want a competitive edge," Cashmore explained. "Austria opts for blood doping to pump up the desired oxygen-carrying blood cells. Finland achieves much the same result, but by training at altitude. Germany also trains at altitude in, say, Kenya, last year, extracts the enriched blood from its athletes then transfuses their own blood back prior to the games. Denmark instructs its athletes to sleep in hypobaric chambers. All achieve the same results via different methods. Under current rules, Austria and Germany are cheating. How come? This is not logically consistent; it is arbitrary and hypocritical," argued Cashmore, the author of the text "Making Sense of Sports."

"If it's the safety of athletes we are looking out for, we shouldn't let them compete at all," Cashmore continued. "Skiing and snowboarding claim about 40 victims -- yes, actual deaths -- per year. Ski aerial is also punishing, accounting for broken limbs, spinal and head injuries. And I won't even get into bobsled. The point is, any harm resulting from doping is unknown but certainly nothing compared with the injuries from competition itself."

An open, regulated system allowing doping may be a better solution, Cashmore suggested. "A safer option is to allow athletes across the whole spectrum of sports to use whatever method they want, but ask them to declare it. This way, governing organizations could collate, monitor, research and, of course, advise. This strikes me as more congruent with reality and more consistent with the pragmatic ideals of sports in the 21st century, where winning has supplanted competing."

While Hoberman expressed concern about how far anti-doping efforts might go, he wasn't ready to see doping regulated rather than prohibited. "These people are cheating, and that's dishonorable, but there is an issue of proportionality," Hoberman said. "The IOC and, more importantly, all these dozens of sports federations will have to decide whether they want to treat doping athletes as criminals. There are only a couple of countries that have literally criminalized athletic doping; Italy and France are the main ones," he pointed out.

"I don't favor quitting the anti-doping effort," Hoberman continued. "It's not a point of view I respect," he said, in an argument that in some ways parallels arguments offered against ending drug prohibition itself. "Still, there are appropriate limits to the enforcement of anti-doping rules, there are issues of privacy and the creation of a whole new class of criminals. The people who are zealous about policing and even criminalizing the doping athlete are doing this in the name of traditional sports, but you have to ask whether such zealousness will do more harm than good to elite sports culture."

No matter how tough a crackdown may emerge, it won't stop doping, said Hoberman. "This is one of the contradictions of elite sports. On the one hand it tries to preserve traditional norms, while on the other it refuses to give up the ideal of high performance and breaking records. Doping athletes do it because they see the benefits as being worth the risk, and this won't stop no matter how many athletes you surveil or arrest. This is not a matter of just a few rotten apples."

-- END --
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Issue #424 -- 2/24/06

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


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Feature: The Olympics Meets the War on Drugs | Feature: Maryland Delegate Introduces Bill to Ease State Aid for Students Affected by Federal Drug Provision | Feature: From the East Bay, the Cannabis Culture Speaks | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Ayahuasca: Supreme Court Okays Use of Psychedelic Tea in Church Rituals | Prohibition: The Wall Street Journal Wavers | Medical Marijuana: Illinois Bill Moving, Passes Senate Committee | Medical Marijuana: New Mexico Bill Dies in House as Time Runs Out | Southeast Asia: Drug War Success Means Poverty for Laotian Farmers | Canada: British Columbia's New Democrats Say Legalize It | Search and Seizure: Florida Appeals Court Restricts Warrantless Drug Dog Searches | Celebrity Mouth: Bruce Willis Declares War on Cocaine | Web Scan: Cannabinoids for Cancer Treatment, Perjury in Police Misconduct | Weekly: This Week in History | Job Opportunity: Community Liaison, PreventionWorks!, Washington, DC | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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