Olympic Drug Testing Program Is Less Than Foolproof

By Elliott Almond
Updated: January 5, 2006

Olympic TestingHELSINKI, Finland — As the track and field world championships began this weekend in Helsinki, Finland, officials boast they will conduct the largest anti-drug campaign in their sport’s history. One in every two athletes will be tested.

But don’t expect any bombshells. Some say such in-competition testing is so easy to pass that only the most dim-witted are caught.

With sprinters running faster than ever this season, drug testers are acknowledging for the first time that their policies are not as effective as the U.S. Congress and the rest of the world have been led to believe. Olympic testing, which lawmakers term the “gold standard” for sports, remains a work in progress.

“I regard this as early days,” Dick Pound, the World Anti-Doping Agency chairman, told the San Jose Mercury News this week. “We’re not taking the gold standard as a stake set in the ground and that is all you have to do.”

Three fundamental weaknesses make the Olympic testing program less than foolproof, interviews with drug-testing officials and athletes show:

Worldwide, there is little testing during the offseason, when track athletes combine heavy weightlifting with drug use.

Competitors from less-developed regions do not undergo the same rigorous testing as those from countries with the resources to create independent drug agencies.

A rule allowing track athletes to miss at least two tests in 18 months is being used to avoid detection.

Canada’s leading drug tester, Christiane Ayotte of Montreal, said it is easy to escape testing.

“We are not there when athletes are doping,” she said.

The announcement of increased testing at the world championships underscores the problem for track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations: Some steroids that are taken orally can be flushed from the body within two weeks.

“Come competition time, most of the things they may be using will be out of the system,” said Chris Butler, an IAAF spokesman.

None of this surprises one prominent Caribbean athlete, who agreed to talk to the Mercury News as long as he was not identified because he still competes and fears retribution.

His suggestion: Test the top 20 athletes in every event two or three times during the offseason, which runs from late September to early January.

Currently, the IAAF does not reveal who it tests but said it plans to become more transparent by 2006.

Another problem is a lack of state-of-the-art testing in certain regions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jamaica and the Bahamas, which do not have independent testing bodies such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Without an independent agency, it is difficult to trust the athletes’ results, especially when they are the world’s best.

Jamaica’s Asafa Powell set the world record in the men’s 100 meters in June with a time of 9.77 seconds. The Bahamas’ Chandra Sturrup, 34, ran a season-best 10.84 in July. By comparison, Union City’s Kelli White — the 2003 world champion who lost her title because of a positive drug test — never ran faster than 10.85.

Although neither Caribbean sprinter has had a positive test, they remain under suspicion because of the system’s deficiencies.

“Us Americans get a lot of drug tests,” banned 400-meter runner Jerome Young said. “We get drug tested three times out of competition. Others don’t get that.”

Throughout a decade-long career, the Caribbean athlete has taken only one random, out-of-competition test — and that was in the United States. All the others came at meets such as the Olympics and world championships, when competitors know they will be tested.

The athlete said the IAAF only notices islanders after they begin running fast.

“But by the time you’ve run fast, you’ve done all the things you need to do,” he said.

The athlete, who did not qualify for this year’s world championships, denied using banned drugs. But he said he takes performance-enhancing substances until they are placed on a banned list.

It would be unfair to single out his region as the only place testing lags. But the situation in the Caribbean highlights the system’s weaknesses.

For example, the IAAF’s Butler said, an average Australian runner might be tested four times at home. “In Jamaica that doesn’t happen.”

Adrian Lorde, chairman of the National Anti-Doping Commission of Barbados, is trying to change that. An IAAF drug tester for a decade, the physician is helping create a regional anti-doping agency in Barbados for all English-speaking Caribbean nations. Africa and Oceania are working on similar arrangements with the help of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We know the field is not level,” Lorde said. “We need to put our house in order.”

Jamaica’s government this spring created an interim anti-doping agency but so far has not funded it. Finances are one of the biggest obstacles to creating a comprehensive program. For example, specimens collected in the Caribbean must be sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency in Montreal because the region does not have an accredited laboratory.

The World Anti-Doping Agency also has limited resources. So it focuses on high-risk sports such as track and cycling and countries that do not have established agencies when administering most of its 2,500 to 5,000 yearly tests.

“That’s not a lot of tests spread across 35 Olympic sports and 202 countries,” said Pound, the WADA chairman.

Another major concern is athletes — and officials — taking advantage of the missed-test rule.

In countries without drug agencies, the national Olympic committees conduct testing. But the Caribbean athlete said his sport’s officials often protect competitors from testers.

Here’s how it works: As a courtesy, IAAF drug testers usually notify local officials that they want to test an athlete in that country. But before testers can reach the athlete’s home, he or she has been warned.

“If you’re not there, they can’t drug test you,” the athlete said.

He said testers usually leave after two days and call it a missed test. The athlete said few worry about it.

“If it is two in the 18 months there is nothing they can do,” he said, referring to the IAAF’s allowance for missed tests. After that, the athlete is suspended for a year.

“Typically they would try to pull a stunt on you where they come back the next week. We understand the way the game is played.”

Pound said more needs to be done to stop the tactic.

“If someone misses a test, you want to get at them right away,” he said.

The case of Greek sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou is an example; the pair withdrew on the eve of the Athens Games last year before being ousted because of a third missed test. Pound lamented that IAAF officials “seemed to go to sleep between those missed tests.”

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency reports that about 5 percent of the 27,000 tests it attempted were missed in the past five years. It does not identify those who have missed tests.

The agency has never banned a track athlete for missing a test. It says about 1 percent of its drug tests are positive.

In the Caribbean and other countries where there is little testing, athletes often take detectable steroids, which is why they try to evade testers.

They rationalize that their clandestine efforts give them a chance against more sophisticated cheaters, who use undetectable designer steroids, as was the case with THG before the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation.

It is difficult to blame them. The Mercury News reported in December that the BALCO regimen included thyroid medication and injections of insulin and adrenaline during competition. Testers cannot detect such drugs.

“When a country starts doing well, people will turn their eyes to you and say, ‘OK, you guys have figured out what is going on,’” the athlete said. “You’re playing the game they way it is played.”