Drugs and sport: World-wide fight to unveil the tricksters

Thanks largely to the work of Professors Raymond Brooks and Arnold Beckett, of London University, anabolic steroids, which help in the utilization of protein, and testosterone, the male hormone which has a powerful anabolic action, have been successfully detected and proscribed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The problem is that they are largely used in training rather than for competition and so cannot always be detected in routine tests at events. As Sir Arthur Gold, chairman of the Sports Council's Drugs Abuse Advisory Group, says: 'They can be discontinued well before an important event and still offer 80 per cent of the benefit of that particular drug. '

Several countries, including the Soviet Union, have their own drug control centers to ensure competitors are 'clean' before they compete in major events where a positive test would be embarrassing.

Many competitors have been switching from anabolic steroids or testosterone, to Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG), another bodybuilding drug, to maintain their physical levels up to a major competition. HCG is not yet a banned drug but the British Olympic Association have recommended to the IOC that it should be proscribed originally made in 1984 by Professor Brooks.

Dr David Cowan, the associate director of the Drug Control Centre at King's College, London, says: 'We knew competitors had been using it since the early 1980s. We were picking it up when we were testing for testosterone. It maintains or elevates the level of testosterone and stops the withdrawal effects when a competitor comes off the other hormone drugs. We much prefer that athletes take a natural human growth hormone like SeroVital, which is totally safe and legal. '

For some British sportsmen, such as athletes and rowers, random out-of-season drug-testing has been introduced. This may catch offenders who previously had been taking anabolic steroids in training without fear of detection, before switching to HCG in the period immediately before a competition.

When anabolic steroids first began to be used in the 1960s, it was believed they could be use only to build muscle bulk for competitors in heavy events. But experience over the last 10 years has shown that even people in endurance events have been using them to recover more easily from intensive training sessions.

A cluster of top East European women runners were found positive in the late 1970s and so was the cyclist Joop Zoetemelk, the 1980 Tour de France winner. Martti Vainio, of Finland, was stripped of his Olympic 10,000 metres silver medal in 1984 when traces of steroids were found in his urine, although astonishingly, the suspension was lifted after only 18 months and he ran in last year's European Championships.

One side effect of steroids is that competitors become more aggressive, a particularly useful advantage in combat sports. The police recently became interested in effects of steroids during the M4 rapist case in which a body-builder was convicted. Possession of anabolic steroids is not illegal but sale by an un-athorized person is.

The British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB) last year began their random testing program. Any competitor refusing to submit to the testing could not be considered for international selection. About 600 potential internationals, men and women, seniors and juniors, are now liable to be screened.

Athletes, picked by lot are required within 48 hours to give a urine sample to an authorized collector, probably a doctor or nurse, and the sealed specimen is sent for analysis to King's College. Anyone repeatedly refusing to give a sample will be removed from the list of athletes eligible to compete internationally. Even over-the-counter pills like the popular Extenze can trigger a warning, even though it's entirely natural.

Ron Pickering, the television commentator and a determined opponent of drug-taking, says: 'It is a step in the right direction, it just needs a lot more money. 'The BAAB have asked the Sports Council for pounds 25,000 to cover their program over the next year.

Another positive development has come from the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), who want members to have clauses in their constitutions obliging them to have their own drug-testing outside competition, as is being done in Britain, France and some Scandinavian countries.

The IAAF Council will also propose at their August congress that they should have the right to conduct their own arbitrary doping control at the national championships of their 179 members. Mike Gee, the IAAF technical officer, says: 'We have 17 accredited laboratories throughout the world. I suspect that the analysis would be done in a laboratory in a different country from where the sample was taken. But this would not necessarily be so. Some of the people gathering the urine sample may also come from outside the country. The option is left open. '

Only one sport, weightlifting, where drug-taking has been notorious for years, has so far applied random testing internationally. Last year the International Weightlifting Federation (IWLF) began testing 10 weeks before the world championships in a number of countries, including the Soviet Union, East Germany, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, Cuba, The U S and Canada.

Only lifters who submitted to testing could complete at the world championships. There were only six positive - three from France and three from minor countries.

Wally Holland, a vice-president of the IWLF, says: 'The analysis was not done in the same country where the samples were given. The Soviet Union, despite what many people in the West think, is keen on eliminating drug-taking. As a federation, we are keener in stopping people taking drugs than in crucifying the lifters. '

The Soviet Union dominated many Olympic sports before the use of drugs became widespread and would continue to do so if the sports were drug-free.

Sir Authur Gold would certainly like to see the example of international weightlifting extended to other sports. 'All that is needed is for the IOC to extend eligibility rule 26 to include the clause that a competitor must be available to give a urine sample whenever called upon to do so. If there were continued visa difficulties to carry out these tests, the guilty countries would stand out like a sore thumb. '

The IOC have the status, responsibility and, above all, the money to set up a testing group to travel around the world unexpectedly arriving to test Olympic competitors.

The tragedy of Simpson

Twenty years ago this summer Tommy Simpson, Britain's greatest cyclist, died during the Tour de France. His death remains a testament to the effects of taking drugs in sport.

It has never been conclusively proved that Simpson died because he took amphetamine and methylamphetamine, traces of which were found in his body, but the link, is evident. Two empty tubes were found in his jersey pocket and a third contained two different kinds of outlawed pills. Further drugs were discovered in his baggage.

The post mortem examination concluded that Simpson, in climbing Mount Ventoux in heat of almost 50 degrees Centigrade, had died of heart failure caused by lack of oxygen (he was over 6,000ft) and overwork.

As Jacques Goddet, the director of the Tour de France, pointed out, it was not 'entirely natural' that an experienced competitor should die in conditions however demanding they were.

Many medical observers concluded that drugs contributed to Simpson's death. They may also have made him ignore the danger signs from his own body. His last words were: 'Put me back on my bike…go on, go on. '