Drug Scandal Hits U.S. Athletes

FOR CANADA, vindication lies just beyond the great, white door. Stacked to the ceiling of a cavernous, walk-in freezer in Pointe-Claire, Que., urine samples await testing for the newest addition to the ever-expanding family of anabolic steroids, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). As Christiane Ayotte, director of the INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier laboratory, releases the lock and swings the door open, a cloud of icy mist parts to reveal a stunning sight inside: more than 3,000 bottles crammed along shelves lining the steel-sided cell. Still more lie sealed in canvas courier bags on the floor of the Montreal-area lab. "This is what happens when they find a new drug," says Ayotte. "When THG was discovered, all these sport federations from around the world started calling us up. 'Freeze all our samples,' they told us. 'We have to test them again.' "

It's been six months since the U.S. Anti-doping Agency announced the detection of THG, and "freeze" is an apt word for the sports world's general reaction. In the coming weeks, Ayotte's team will confirm that none of the roughly 200 samples collected from Canadian athletes in the last half of 2003 tested positive for the newly banned substance. But THG is not a story about drugs in Canadian sport; it's about drugs in American sport, and for that reason, the non-American athletic universe sits transfixed, welded to the news by a combination of dread and gleeful anticipation, wondering who will get tarred next. For years, athletes from around the globe have privately alleged their American competitors were obviously doping - all the while enduring sermons on the evils of performance-enhancing drugs from the likes of U.S. sprinter Carl Lewis.

Now, 15 years after the disgrace of Ben JOHNSON, the reckoning south of the border has finally begun. Since the discovery of THG, at least five prominent U.S. athletes, including the world's top female middle-distance runner, Regina Jacobs, have tested positive for the new drug, while others await their test results. Still more, including sprinters Kelli White and Chryste Gaines, escaped the THG dragnet, only to come up positive for other drugs like the psycho-stimulant modafinil. And the lid on the U.S. history of covering up drug offences is about to break open: last April, one former U.S. anti-doping official released documents showing more than 100 U.S. athletes - including 19 medal winners - were allowed to compete in various Olympics after testing positive for banned substances between 1988 and 2000. The revelation confirmed the worst suspicions of Olympic cynics. And the mere mention of one of those names - guilty of three positive tests for a stimulant in 1988, yet known for his public attacks on his rival, Johnson - is enough to make most Canadians gag: Carl Lewis.

SEATED IN HER cluttered office, with a schematic of the THG molecule displayed on her laptop, Ayotte admits her astonishment at the conspiracy that gave birth to the new steroid. Other drugs have been designed in the past to evade tests, she notes; Eastern bloc countries made an art of the practice in the '70s and '80s. But they at least put their drugs through clinical trials, so they would understand the risk to athletes. "I never thought anyone would go this far," she says of THG. "Not in the United States."

More encouraging is how the distributors of THG were finally shut down. Few people had ever heard of the drug before last June, when an anonymous U.S. track coach delivered a syringe of the stuff to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency offices in Colorado Springs. Whether the coach was motivated by guilt or concern was unclear. But the whistle-blowing move allowed scientists at a lab in Los Angeles to analyze the material on a mass spectrometer capable of identifying components of a substance down to the molecular level. The lab then synthesized a batch and developed a test for it. Within weeks, officials were testing some 550 urine samples from American athletes. By October, they were announcing positive results.

Acting on information from the tipster coach, drug and tax officers raided the offices of Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), a San Francisco-area nutrition company with links to numerous high-profile U.S. athletes. In time, investigators identified BALCO as the distributor of THG, and its colourful owner, Victor Conte, as a target of their investigation.

But the media spotlight quickly shifted to athletes associated in some way with BALCO. Both Jacobs and Dwain Chambers, a top-ranked British sprinter who trains in the Bay Area, have tested positive for THG. So too have U.S. shot-put champion Kevin Toth and hammer-thrower John McEwen. Meanwhile, a grand jury investigating BALCO's conduct has subpoenaed a who's who of American sports stars, from sprinting super-couple Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones to baseball sluggers Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Four members of the National Football League's Oakland Raiders who reportedly tested positive were also subpoenaed. Some of the athletes deny using the drug, while others deny doing so knowingly. Either way, it is the greatest doping scandal in U.S. sporting history.

The true meaning of this uproar is, of course, subject to interpretation. Montrealer Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, describes it as a "good news/bad news" situation, the bad news being the willingness of athletes, coaches and doctors to conspire in the production of undetectable substances. The good news? "They're not that far ahead," says Pound. "Overnight, THG has become a dinosaur drug." Others are less optimistic. Chuck Yesalis, a kinesiology professor from Penn State University, cites THG as proof of an insoluble problem rather than an investigative triumph. "Anyone who assumes that THG is the only designer drug out there would be naive and arguably negligent," he says. What's more, fans don't seem to care enough about doping to vote with their feet - the only response Yesalis feels will produce lasting change. "Are you upset enough to turn off your television? Will you stay away from the baseball park?" he asks. "I think the fans believe a lot of these guys and gals are using drugs. But nobody's losing sleep over it."

SOMEONE WHO does care can be found most days at the Centre Claude-Robillard, a sprawling indoor-outdoor track facility just north of Montreal. On a Sunday afternoon, Nicolas Macrozonaris, 23, watches from the sidelines as a few athletes chug down the lanes on the east side of the track. From time to time, he rubs a shoulder muscle he tweaked in weight training, rotating the arm to ease the stiffness. It's the kind of pain steroids would render meaningless: among other things, the drugs help you recover from muscle injuries. But as a drug-free sprinter entering the last few months of an Olympic year, Macrozonaris must now rest in preparation for a track meet at McGill University. In the meantime, he's happy to hold forth on THG, whose discovery he regards as a boon. "Now," he says, "we have 10 times the chance to win medals."

A stretch, maybe, but Macrozonaris has cause for optimism. Last May in Mexico City, he clocked 10.03 seconds in the 100-m, shaving nearly a tenth of a second off his previous best. Ranked 23rd in the world, he is on a trajectory to go higher, perhaps even to make the final at this summer's Olympic Games in Athens.

All of which makes him the latest Canadian to lug the Ben Johnson burden - much as his childhood heroes, Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey, did in their time. He's following a similar path: in his first indoor season, Macrozonaris tied Johnson's Canadian junior record in the 50-m, clocking 5.83 seconds. Two years ago, he beat Johnson's 20-year-old record in the 50-m at a Knights of Columbus meet in Saskatoon. Now, officials routinely buttonhole Macrozonaris at home, at his practice facility, even on the street, demanding urine samples for testing. This, he knows, is due in large measure to Johnson. "But you know what? I have respect for Ben Johnson," says Macrozonaris. "His character was unbeatable. Yes he was dirty, but who wasn't? Go back in that '88 Olympic final and five of them have now tested positive for something. In my opinion they're all dirty."

He's not far off. Lewis, Britain's Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell of the U.S. and Canada's Desai Williams - all were implicated in drug scandals following Seoul. And that makes Johnson's coach, Charlie Francis, into something of a prophet. In testimony before Justice Charles Dubin's inquiry into drug use, Francis charged that his runner was only one of many cheaters; Johnson just happened to get caught.

If there's a silver lining to the Johnson fiasco, it's that Canada learned its lesson early. Yes, the country still has the odd doping case; bobsledder Kendra Herbert, 20, was banned last week from competition for three months after testing for the stimulant ephedrine. But thanks to reforms recommended by Dubin, our sporting bodies neither protect nor turn a blind eye to transgressors. For athletes without the fortune to pay lawyers should they be caught, that makes steroids a lot less tempting.

It's an example many in the anti-doping business hope the Americans will follow. Pound, for one, has led a chorus of international critics demanding that U.S.A. Track and Field come clean about a reported positive steroid test by 400-m runner Jerome Young. USATF exonerated Young over the 1999 result, yet refuses to release its findings to the International Olympic Committee - or even identify Young as the athlete involved. Without such basic information, Pound argues, it's hard to hold American athletes accountable. "It may be that the U.S. authorities did everything right," he says. "But their persistence in refusing to divulge anything, even now that [Young's] name is public, makes you wonder."

If the U.S. sporting bodies fall into line, it will mark a significant advance in the war against doping. But even continued U.S. resistance can't dampen the cheer Canadian anti-doping authorities are feeling after 2003: the THG case has exposed a conspiracy many suspected, and guilty parties are being punished. And in an unexpected bonus, Canadian appeals have won an Olympic gold medal for cross-country skier Beckie Scott; she came third in Salt Lake City behind two competitors who were later stripped of their medals for doping. Paul Melia is chief executive of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which administers Canada's domestic drug testing program. All signs suggest to him the war on doping is worthwhile. "I think the vast majority of athletes are competing clean," he says. "Certainly the vast majority in Canada are."

Back in Pointe-Claire, Ayotte agrees. As an example of improved testing procedures, she opens a courier bag containing A and B urine samples from a national team basketball player. The two bottles are sealed in unbreakable plastic and accompanied by load slips showing an unbroken chain of possession. "You should have seen what we were receiving 10 or 15 years ago," she says. "Bottles with plastic tape instead of seals. Bad paperwork. It's so much better now."

Ayotte, like Melia, has heard Yesalis's arguments - that cheaters are years ahead of the doping cops; that there are more THGs; that athletes will always seek to beat the system. "What I hate is that opponents of drug testing actually use our work against us," she says. "They say, 'You see? These tests prove what lengths the athletes will go to.' " Truth is, says Ayotte, the recent scandals show sports are cleaner, and the doping authorities are finally getting the upper hand.

Their success offers hope for athletes who want to win without cheating, by sending a chill through circles of athletes like the group using THG. For a country that has staked its athletic future on competing clean, that's encouraging news, indeed.

Caught in the THG Web

TESTED POSITIVE: Regina Jacobs, U.S. middle-distance runner and five-time world medallist; Kevin Toth, U.S. shot-put champion; John McEwen, U.S. hammer-thrower; Dwain Chambers, British sprinter; and reportedly Dana Stubblefield, Chris Cooper, Barret Robbins and Bill Romanowski of football's Oakland Raiders.

IMPLICATED: more than a dozen athletes have appeared before a grand jury investigating BALCO, THG's distributor, including sprinters Kelli White, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, baseball sluggers Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, and boxer Sugar Shane Mosley.

See also DRUG USE, NONMEDICAL.

Maclean's January 19, 2004