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SEPTEMBER 15, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 36 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Juanito V. Canonizado.

The Real Dopes
Whatever the rhetoric, sports drugging may be unstoppable

ALSO
Lucrative Business: A two-pronged approach to end the tragic farce of hostage-taking

Last week China announced that another of its athletes had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Liu Yunfeng, a 20-km walker, had been touted as one of the country's few Sydney Olympics gold-medal prospects in track and field. Then Beijing cut 40 contestants and officials from its team, including seven rowers who failed drug tests. This year, China has conducted 2,200 urine tests — more than half outside of competition — and 300 blood tests, consigning about 20 world champions and record holders as well as national coaches to the sin bin. The effort has made China a leader in the expensive global fight against sports doping. It has also confirmed international suspicions about some fairly outrageous Chinese results chalked up in the past decade. Bad, bad China has been cheating, the critics can now smugly chortle.

That would be funny if it weren't so vicious. Anyone familiar with elite sport knows there can never be an outright winner in the war against doping. International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch once vowed that drugs would be fought to the death. Mission impossible, as the only weapons employed are half-truths and endless compromises. For everyone involved has a vested interest in the status quo. No IOC official wants another Ben Johnson to shock the public. No national sports council wants to be exposed. Nor does any coach, agent, sponsor or athlete. Most sports authorities are content with a small witch-hunt here, a few "cheats" exposed there. Don't roast the goose laying the golden eggs.

Indeed, drugs have always been a part of sport. For the ancient Greeks, it was seeds and mushrooms. For the modern competitor, it is human growth hormone (for which there is no effective test). No doubt in Sydney, drugs that don't even have official scientific names will be utilized. They will improve performance — or mask other substances that have already done so. Scratch the surface of most world-class competitors and you will find someone who is willing to at least consider a Faustian pact — swapping instant fame and riches for later ill health. Make the "safe" drug legal? The athlete will triple the dose. Anything to gain an advantage.

Another issue is the definition of "performance-enhancing." "Natural" food supplements, such as the steroid-like creatin, aren't illegal. Baseball's home-run king, Mark McGwire, is a keen proponent. Some Australian athletes plan to spend the Olympics sleeping in oxygen tents, breathing artificially mixed air that boosts red-blood-cell counts. No rule forbids that. At Los Angeles, the U.S. got away with doping its cyclists with their own oxygenated blood. That practice was banned, but the oxygen tent delivers a similar result. Only the syringes have gone.

Moreover, the Internet provides a useful marketplace. No international body polices sports drugs. Embattled Australian customs chiefs report a 25% rise in the detection of performance-enhancing drugs in the past four years. Atlanta, site of the last Olympics, is said to be awash in the stuff. Want to beat the testers? There is a website selling guaranteed drug-free urine, at $69 for five ounces, plus postage and handling.

Undoubtedly, China is trying to fight the good fight, spurred by Beijing's desire to win the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games. But before too long the Chinese will have in place the same system as richer rivals, ensuring that those who could test positive don't. In today's sporting mega-business, the only dopes are those who get caught. Or those still applauding what they think is a clean contest.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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