Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Friday, February 10, 2006 cael bob

Loopholes in Olympics drug policy big enough to ski through

      With the 2010 Winter Olympics just north of the border in Vancouver, B.C., Seattle will be closely watching the Turin Games beginning today. If the Turin precedent holds, athletes in Vancouver will have a lot more to compete with than one another: cheaters using drugs. Athletes will be doping in Turin.

      Despite progress against drugs in sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee, the remaining loopholes are large enough for athletes to ski, sled and skate right through.

      There are 2,500 athletes from 85 countries (215 from the United sizeStates) in Italy. Athletes can avoid no-notice drug tests, use illegal substances legally by attaining waivers ("Therapeutic Use Exemptions") and show up late to international events for the testing. WADA is playing down the threat of new drugs but the fact is that in the past several Olympics, some new form of EPO, an oxygen-boosting drug, was uncovered and busted, leaving speculation as to others. A Canadian WADA lab has found a new steroid that could not be tested in time for Turin. Further, urine tests do not reflect the scope of drugs as well as hair or DNA testing, currently not used. Some tests can detect only three days back.

      No-notice out-of-competition tests are easily dodged despite the rules. One can claim being out of town or out of the house.

      A number of athletes claimed illness before miraculously showing up at the last minute to win medals in Sydney. This allows athletes to use drugs and quit in enough time so tests at the Games can be beaten.

      Urine tests cannot stop blood doping. Immediately after the 2002 Salt Lake Games blood transfusion equipment, including packets of blood, were found in the house where the Austrian ski team stayed. The likelihood that the team was injecting red blood cells to increase endurance and performance on the slopes is high. An Austrian official claimed the equipment was part of regular anti-flu medical supplies and the athletes were therefore not subject to further testing. They got away with cheating.

      A therapeutic use exemption allows athletes to take/use a banned substance when their nation's International Federation deems the substance appropriate for the treatment of an ailment.

      It's like a kindergarten kid getting a note from his doctor. All it takes is a doctor to fill out a form after you apply to your federation and get their subjective agreement of no "significant enhancement of performance." Your national sports federation, doctor and trainer support your claim that your "disease" requires testosterone or some other drug. WADA President Dick Pound is right to question how it is possible that Olympic level athletes get sick and need medicines (including stimulants such as pseudoephedrine, no longer even banned) six times more than the general population.

      Though WADA wants to crack down on the practice, therapeutic exemptions seem to be encouraged by national sports federations. The Australian rowing official Web site for athletes gives advice for attaining an exemption directly below a heading, "High Performance."

      Before the Sydney Olympics, Australian police blocked vials of drugs coming in. Italian officers also want to demonstrate effective enforcement but the Olympics demanded Italy bar police busts or arrests in the Olympic Village or sports venues, leaving "enforcement" to the Olympics' drug testers. If doping equipment or drugs are in the Village or on the slopes, shouldn't clean athletes be protected from cheaters and law-breakers?

      Pound, former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey and former U.S. anti-doping chief Frank Shorter did well to create WADA and USADA. More progress is on the bubble of readiness, including a test for human growth hormone, a major endurance and strength enhancer, and improved tests for EPO and similar drugs intended for cancer but abused by endurance athletes.

      However, it appears the Olympics have a long way to go before they are truly drug free. We should support the anti-drug efforts in every way possible -- collaborative research, funding, world and national legal and legislative backup, and so on. There are far too many loopholes and ways for athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs and get away with it.


  • Robert Weiner was spokesman for the White House National Drug Policy Office from 1995 to 2001 and directed World Anti-Doping Agency media outreach for the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002.
  • Cael Pulitzer is senior policy analyst and sports policy specialist at Robert Weiner Associates.

    Original as published
    Published op-eds by Robert Weiner