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Monday, July 27, 1998 Published at 23:33 GMT 00:33 UK


The drugs getting a sporting chance

Ben Johnson raised the profile of drugs in sport

The suspension of two top American athletes for using banned substances caps a week in which drug use has overshadowed the world of sport.

The proposed bans handed to sprinter Dennis Mitchell and shot putter Randy Barnes follows the ongoing scandal in the Tour de France, where cycling stars have confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs, and punishment in sports from swimming to snooker.

Not since the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was thrown out of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 has the issue of drugs in sport been so prominent in the headlines.

The year began with the news that a Chinese swimmer was caught travelling with 13 vials of Human Growth Hormone, a banned substance under Olympic rules.

Michelle De Bruin, who won three swimming gold medals for Ireland in the 1996 Olympics, is fighting allegations of drug use.

Even Ronnie O'Sullivan, world snooker's number three, received a £61,000 fine for traces of marijuana in a drug test.

Football has also faced allegations of drug use, most recently by Roma coach Zdenek Zeman who has suggested that the game has sold its soul to drugs and big business.

Most dramatically the Tour de France has been rocked by the scandal surrounding the banning of the Festina team for the use of performance-enhancing substances.

Michele Verroken, the UK Sports Council's chief drugs-buster, has said that one in 100 samples now show some levels of doping. New statistics show this figure level is rising.

Five major types used

No matter what the sport, the drugs used come from the same five major groups:

  • Stimulants, such as amphetamines, which improve reaction times. These have been used by sprinters and cyclists.

  • Steroids, such as testosterone, which increase strength. Weightlifters and other sports-people have used these to improve recovery times.

  • Narcotic analgesics, such as morphine, which can help the user ignore pain. Rarely used by professional sportsmen, except when seriously injured.

  • Diuretics, which help with weight loss. Boxers and jockeys have used these drugs to help reach their fighting-weights.

  • Beta-blockers, which steady the nerves. These drugs are most widely abused in sports requiring fine motor skills, such as golf and shooting.

    Compulsory blood-testing?

    With the drug problem this serious many have called for a major blitz.

    New plans to introduce compulsory blood testing, traditionally resisted by sports authorities, to replace the unreliable urine samples are gathering pace.

    But unexpectedly perhaps the tide may be turning towards a more accepting stance on drugs.

    Juan Antonio Samaranch, chairman of the International Olympic Committee, has suggested that the list of banned drugs be slashed, with only harmful substances outlawed.

    His comments have attracted disbelief from those who believe that drugs in sport undermine the fairness of competition.

    But others believe that allowing drugs into sport is as natural as accepting singers and film stars who benefit from drugs.

    Will Paish, a British coach, argues for the use of drugs in sport
    Wilf Paish, the British coach who helped Tessa Sanderson win an Olympic gold medal, says sport is entertainment and we should not care whether our sports stars use them.

    He has said: "We should see drug-taking as an acceptable way of enhancing performance in sport."

    There is also greater resignation that with the advanced techniques used to cover drug use and the expense of meaningful testing, traces found cannot be proven.

    A turning point in this argument came in the Winter Olympics in February.

    Ross Rebagliati, a Canadian snowboarder, was stripped of his gold medal when traces of marijuana, considered by many sports-people not to be performance enhancing, was found in his urine.

    The medal was reinstated. The IOC did not have enough proof that some of the marijuana was not passively consumed and the limitations of drug testing were clear to all.

    Others fight against drugs

    Despite such calls for a relaxation of drug prohibition, many believe that drug-free sport is worth fighting for.

    [ image: Diane Modahl: Still fighting to clear her name]
    Diane Modahl: Still fighting to clear her name
    The British athlete Diane Modahl, who is still fighting to clear her name after accusations of drug use four years ago, said: "Sports is about being the best you can be as an individual."

    Simon Clegg, of the British Olympic Association, has also pledged to stand firm on drugs.

    He said: "We must invest in anti-dopng systems and ensure the cheats are caught."

    The desire to win is pushing athletes to train and compete ever more ferociously, driven by money and sponsorship that have turned even previously amateur sports like athletics into big business

    But with that pressure drugs have become a natural part of competition for some, and an ever more acceptable alternative for others.

    When the IOC gathers in January for a major drugs conference, it looks as though the battle against illegal doping may not be as hard fought as once before.

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