Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Athletes don't run drug risks alone


Even before the Athens Games can begin and with our Olympic trials under way, the Olympic movement and professional sports must confront a widening scandal involving allegations of performance-enhancing drugs by some of the best-known athletes.

Sydney five-time medalist Marion Jones, baseball super-slugger Barry Bonds, 100-meter world record holder Tim Montgomery and distance runner Regina Jacobs are among the many U.S. stars whose reputations are being badly damaged if not destroyed.

Yet they represent a minuscule number of elite sports figures, right? Why does it matter?

It is not only the athletes' standing at stake. The bid of New York City and the United States to host the 2012 Olympics is on the line. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has said as much: "One of the criteria is whether a country has complied with WADA (the World Anti- Doping Agency), and we are still a long way from that choice (of the 2012 host city)." Clearly, the U.S. drug scandal, whether it still exists at that time and how and if we've cleaned it up will be big factors in the voting.

On June 3, the House passed legislation banning steroid precursors and performance-enhancing drugs, and the Senate will now consider the legislation. The issue doesn't end with athletic icons. They are just the starting point. Last year more than a million American teenage boys and girls abused steroids -- a tripling over the past decade. That's more than those who used crack or heroin and almost half as many as ecstasy users -- and we consider those three potent drugs.

Prominent athletes invariably serve as role models for kids who assume their behavior is acceptable. Many youngsters will simply seek the same "edge" they think the pros have. After Mark McGwire hit 70 homers to break Roger Maris' record and admitted using androstenedione ("andro"), a substance now banned by Major League Baseball, its abuse quintupled nationwide. With the Summer Olympics in Athens nearing, children worldwide will be watching images of sculpted athletes performing impossible feats.

The cheating aspect of this issue is disgraceful, but the health risks pose an even greater concern. At a recent WADA meeting in Oslo, the Norwegian Sports Confederation distributed posters of steroid- using athletes, including a picture of a man with shrunken testes and a woman replete with chest hair. Only in Scandinavia would the truthful ramifications be so graphically depicted. We recently showed the posters with permission to a University of Virginia class on national drug policy, and the 200 students reacted with initial amusement and then shock. The posters' message worked.

Some 10,000 former East German swimmers who had been forced on a steroid regimen now have liver damage, diabetes, cancer and other serious health problems. Florence Griffith Joyner died 10 years after she suddenly stopped competing, but her family asserted that her autopsy revealed no drugs. What a surprise -- drugs aren't traceable in tests after 10 years have passed, but her organs were enlarged, an effect drugs are known to produce. Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler died after using ephedra -- finally persuading the Food and Drug Administration to ban the drug.

Even more important, what kind of message does drug abuse by stars send to youngsters?

Craig Masback, head of USA Track and Field, recently gave a powerful speech at track's national convention calling for a lifetime ban on elite athletes using illegal drugs. We approached him afterward and said, "Craig, this isn't only about elite athletes. It's about the million kids who use steroids." He agreed to include this, the bigger picture, in his presentations.

Frank Shorter, who worked closely with the White House as the former U.S. Anti-Doping Agency director and who initiated a new worldwide emphasis on examination for the blood booster EPO and on related tests, said, "I'm not doing this for the gold medal I lost to a cheater. (Shorter was the 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist and won the 1976 silver behind East German Waldemar Cierpinski.) I'm doing this for my son so that he knows he doesn't have to cheat."

Former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey launched the campaign in 1999 for world and U.S. sports anti-doping agencies to be "independent, open, accountable, no-notice and retroactive." Those five objectives are even more needed today, though perhaps more difficult to obtain. Of the original triumvirate of Dick Pound, head of the WADA, McCaffrey and Shorter, only Pound remains, and he is still battling despite limited support.

We hope that Marion Jones, Barry Bonds and other sports stars are telling the truth when they say they are drug-free. It does matter -- to the athletes, to our children and to New York.


Robert Weiner, a drug policy and public affairs consultant, was director of public affairs for the White House National Drug Policy Office from 1995 to 2001. Sasha Varghese is sports and athletics chair of the University of Virginia Lodge.

The Newark Star-Ledger, July 13, 2004