The Inside Dope
Holding countries accountable for their athletes could end the steroid scourge.
PRIOR TO THE 1984 ROTTERDAM MARATHON, Martti Vainio pumped his body full of anabolic steroids. These hormones went to his working muscles and caused them to produce a flood of protein. The extra protein allowed his body to run both faster and longer.
One of a group of accomplished distance runners known as the "Flying Finns," Vainio was also an incorrigible doper. By 1984, Vainio was using up to 27 different artificial supplements on any given day. He had also begun experimenting with various sex hormones, to great effect. The drugs helped Vainio hit his peak at 33, an age when most distance runners are declining. At Rotterdam, the benefit of Vainio's drug use was on full display as he cruised to an impressive third-place finish. Unfortunately for him, his doping was also easily detected, and he was nailed for using illegal steroids.
News of Vainio's positive test should have been devastating. Once word reached the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, Vainio would be banned from that summer's Olympics in Los Angeles and would miss the chance of a lifetime. The Finnish Athletic Association would be deprived of its best hope for Olympic gold. The Finnish people would lose a national hero.
But none of this happened. Vainio suffered no fall from grace at Rotterdam. Rather, he went on to win a silver medal at the Los Angeles Games. How? Because even in competitions that take place abroad, most drug testing is controlled by the athlete's home country. So when Finnish sports officials discovered Vainio's positive test, they were poised to engineer a prompt cover-up. Rather than forwarding the result to the IOC, Antti Lanamaki, the chief coach of the Finnish Athletic Association, destroyed the report of Vainio's damning test. If any non-Finn knew about the test in Rotterdam, he did not tell the IOC.
The scam might have succeeded, but a mixture of serendipity and stupidity unraveled it. After winning the silver medal, Vainio's Olympic drug test revealed trace amounts of the anabolic steroid Primobolan, just enough to strip him of his medal and ban him from the sport. Vainio professed confusion and analysts now assume that Vainio made a simple but glaring mistake in his doping program: He injected himself with a bag of his old blood, hoping that having the extra blood would improve his performance even more, but not realizing that the old blood was tainted with steroids. Word leaked about the Finnish government's cover-up at Rotterdam, and Antti Lanamaki was forced to resign in disgrace.
Two decades later, it appears that Finland has learned its lesson. The country has established an independent antidoping agency, one that regularly tests Finnish Olympians for illegal substances. Unfortunately, however, few nations have followed suit, and drug abuse is still rampant in international track and field. According to a study published by America's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in the run-up to the 2000 Olympics, athletes estimated that as many as 30 percent of their peers were taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Among the 202 nations that participate in the Olympics, the recently formed World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, has identified only 60 that maintain domestic antidoping agencies. Of these, 47 have adopted the World Anti-Doping Code, which includes a list of banned substances. Among the nonparticipants are such athletic powerhouses as Kenya and Ethiopia, winners of a total of 14 medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics. These nations are making no effective effort to ensure that their athletes are clean, instead leaving the job of enforcement to an overstretched, overworked WADA. When the IOC recently criticized WADA for reducing the number of international drug tests it conducts, WADA replied that it just didn't have the money to do the job.
The preference of the nations that don't test is clearly ignorance, and it's easy to understand why. Not testing is cheaper and easier than testing, and your athletes are much less likely to be busted for doping. For years, the International Olympic Committee has allowed nations to go unsanctioned when they fail to test their own athletes.
And consider what happens when a country does test diligently. In 2004, the United States' domestic testing implicated 40 American athletes for use of banned substances. As the steady stream of positive results hit the media, the United States earned a reputation as a nation of cheaters. In 2004, after this country brought four of its own athletes to justice, The Daily Telegraph of London proclaimed that doping in the United States had "reached ludicrous proportions." The apparent lesson was that, instead of being respected as a sign of scruples, domestic testing exposes a nation to negative publicity and the loss of top athletes.
THE BEST SOLUTION TO THESE PROBLEMS is to hold nations responsible by punishing them for the chemical indiscretions of their athletes. Under the current system, a first-time doping offender receives a two-year ban on competition, while a repeat offender is banned from the Olympics for life. At the moment, this represents the total extent of the WADA antidoping system.
But the guilt should spread further, since a positive WADA test also reveals that domestic antidoping enforcement has broken down. If it takes a WADA check to catch an athlete, the natural follow-up question should be why domestic authorities didn't catch him first. Domestic agents have far better access to their own athletes and are in a superior position to test them. If domestic authorities miss a cheater, the nation is either not testing sufficiently to catch and deter dopers, or, just as bad, is ignoring the results of its own testing.
An appropriate penalty would be the loss of one Olympic berth for every doper caught by a WADA test at an internationally sanctioned competition. Under current Olympic rules, countries are allowed a maximum of three athletes in any individual event. But suppose a Finnish 10,000-meter runner tests positive for the steroid nandrolone in a WADA check. Under the new system, Finland could enter a maximum of two runners in the next Olympic 10,000-meter race. There would be no penalty if the athlete were caught by Finland's own domestic program, either in or out of competition.
Team events could be similarly sanctioned. Current Olympic rules state that a country can send only one team of a designated size to the Olympics. For example, soccer sets a maximum of 18 players per team. Under the proposed system, every positive WADA test would result in the loss of one roster spot for the upcoming Olympics. If a Finnish soccer player is caught by a WADA spot-check, Finland's Olympic soccer team could bring only 17 players. Every additional positive would lead to one more lost spot, until the country couldn't field a team.
This system would have the additional benefit of creating incentives for peer sanctions. Athletes often collude in their drug use. But under this system, every athlete would have a huge incentive to keep his or her teammates clean and would likely help domestic agencies catch cheaters. No Finnish runner would want his country to have just two slots in the next Olympic's 10,000-meter race.
Punishing national teams for the indiscretion of individual athletes might seem harsh, but it could be tempered. A country could ensure that it didn't lose Olympic berths by operating a comprehensive domestic testing system that tested each of its athletes, say, six times a year and by following international standards for the substances it looks for. Poor countries that didn't have enough money to run comprehensive testing programs (a single test costs $150) could be supported financially, and there is already a United Nations program working to do this.
The goal would be to keep the Olympics clean and to prevent another Martti Vainio from slipping through the cracks. The need is obvious. Just last year, a similar situation occurred with Tyler Hamilton, an American cyclist. In the spring before the Games, Hamilton and his team were warned that he was suspected of doping. At that point, the United States should have either asked Hamilton not to ride at the Olympics or begun testing him far more vigorously. It did neither. If the U.S. team knew it faced a national penalty for a positive test, it would have likely been far more diligent. Instead, Hamilton rode, won, and then tested positive.
Because there were problems with that test, the IOC has let him keep his gold medal. But another test from a race a few weeks later showed that he had been injecting excess blood into his veins. Hamilton has been banned from international competition for two years, but the United States has suffered no consequences. Without a change in the system, there's no reason to expect countries to clean up their acts, and the same thing might happen again in 2008.