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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 22:18 GMT 23:18 UK
Olympic Challenge: transcript

This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Olympic Challenge programme, broadcast on 28 March.

Presenter Rob Maclean: Athletics. Some of the top athletes in the world compete in Glasgow as the countdown continues to the Sydney Olympics. The games are just months away. But sport - and athletics in particular - is in turmoil.

A flood of positive drug tests for the banned steroid Nandrolone has cast serious doubt on the honesty and integrity of the athletes and the sport itself.

The list of banned athletes includes some of the biggest names in the athletics world - Linford Christie and Olympic medal hopes Mark Richardson and Scottish sprinter Dougie Walker. Branded as drug cheats, it could emerge that they are innocent victims.

Frank Dick, Former UK Olympic Team Coach: We trust that the people who write the rules, we trust the scientists who put the material together, have done all the necessary homework and have got it right. If that isn't right, then we've got serious problems. If the science has not been properly exercised by whoever, whether it's the IOC, IAAF, British Sport or whoever, then that is irresponsible.

Rob: Dougie Walker is out in the cold. Although exonerated by the UK authorities, he remains banned from the sport at international level following a positive test in December 1998.

Dougie Walker I would hate to be successful and have it built upon a lie, I couldn't handle it. And you get a lot of sort of prestige attached with being successful - your friends, your family - they all like to be associated with you, and I couldn't cheat them.

Rob: Olympic year should be all about the road to fame and fortune, but there's a buzz word in athletics which has nothing to do with personal bests or all-comers records - the word is Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, a banned substance.

The number of athletes testing positive has reached epidemic proportions. Scotland's Dougie Walker, the European 200 metres champion, is one who's been labelled a cheat and whose career is on the line. But where is the scientific and medical evidence which finds Walker and others around the world guilty? The sport is in crisis. Athletics is chasing the truth about Nandrolone.

Speculation is rife as to why so many athletes have tested positive for Nandrolone. So the sport is full of cheats? It's coming from steroids in the food chain? It's in the supplements that athletes are taking. There is even evidence that athletes' bodies may be producing it naturally.

Commentator: Oh he gets it, he's straight over!

Rob: Whatever the cause, the result has been confusion and panic. Dalton Grant is the UK men's team captain and one of the world's leading highjumpers.

Dalton Grant: We don't know what the problem is about Nandrolone and we just really would like someone to be able to help us and, you know, deal with that situation, that whether it's in your supplements or your food or whatever reason it is, and my heart goes out to the athletes who don't really know what's the situation - if they're going to be banned or if they're going to compete - and at the end of the day their dream is to do well in the Olympics as well, and at the moment that dream is on a hold.

Commentator: Jackson, and Jarrett gets it, Jackson in second place.

Rob: Tony Jarrett is one of the top half dozen hurdlers in the world.

Tony Jarrett: Believe it or, I'm very scared now. I normally take all supplements myself, and I've stopped now because I'm very scared and it's a very scary issue.

Rob: So you've stopped taking any of the food supplements now?

Tony Jarrett: Definitely, because it's getting to a stage that, you know, you don't know what you can take, you know. And I wouldn't want to sacrifice my athlete's career on something where somebody might tell you it's safe and then next thing he turns up positive, and then your career is done.

I know Mark Richardson, and I know Gary Cadogan, and I know Linford, and I know Doug Walker, and I don't think these guys are going to be silly enough. If you're the top ten in Britain, or you're numbered one or two in Britain, you know you're going to get random tested. Now I know I've been tested twice already this year, and, you know, I was sitting back and waiting for the results thinking 'Jeez, I know I've been taking tablet supplements, what's going to happen'?

Rob: Jarrett's friend and rival, Commonwealth European Olympic Medalist and former world record holder Colin Jackson, has been at the very top for nearly ten years.

Colin Jackson: You know, with all these tests that's gone on with people, but they've produced it naturally. You know, I've had hundreds and hundreds of drug tests in my whole career and I've always been, you know, negative on all of them, so I'm not sure what my natural levels are because they don't report those kind of things to you. But I really don't know.

Rob: But it's a scary time for athletics at the moment presumably?

Colin Jackson: It's a scary time for all sports, especially at the end of the day a lot of people's livelihood is dependent on this sport.

Rob: Dougie Walker has been competing full time for three years. On a cold and damp February morning in Edinburgh, he trains alone. It's all a far cry from the records and personal bests of seasons 1997 and 1998 when he broke into the big time as a world class sprinter. At the age of 24 he had the world at his feet.

There were raised eyebrows from people looking in from the outside. How come he can have made such giant strides in such a short time? Were you aware of that perception?

Dougie Walker: It was only subsequently, I suppose, since the test results came out they had, I suppose, the bruhaha with the press and everything. Pretending or making it seem as if I had come from nowhere.

But anyone who had a sort of basic knowledge of the sport had seen me develop and seen me coming through, like winning junior titles and then progressing to senior and then winning - well I won British Senior Title in '97 and then also '98 but no-one really sort of takes notice of that as much. It's only if you get seen on television, I suppose. Everyone kind of thinks you've come from nowhere.

Rob: So to you it seemed like a natural progression?

Dougie Walker: Yes. I mean it was only like a tenth of a second every year, sort of thing. It wasn't a great improvement. Maybe the consistency level of my competitions improved, but apart from that, no.

Commentator: And Walker is coming away with this, Golding is fading. Walker is going to take the European Title.

Rob: Dreams of further track successes, of standing on the winner's rostrum at the Sydney Olympics, of lucrative sponsorship deals and financial security were shattered by a drug test in December 1998.

Dougie Walker: It was Tuesday training night which means I do weights, and I came back; just about to step into the shower after training and the doorbell went and it was John Ellis, testing officer for this, well I don't know if it's for this area, but yes.

He'd done me several times in the past before. He'd always come to the house. He actually went to school with my father's older brother, so he knows the family and everything. It was very relaxed. Yes, everything was fairly standard. Came in, had a seat, drank some water to make the process a bit quicker. I went into the bathroom, did the necessary, I suppose, which is never that pleasant but yes, I divided it all up. Everything was very standard. Went away, never thought twice.

Rob: Were you unconcerned?

Dougie Walker: Yes, absolutely. As I always had been. I mean, that wasn't the first, I'd been done fifteen, twenty times, something like that. So I knew what I was doing. It's come as second nature.

Rob: When did you hear the news?

Dougie Walker: Sixth of January. Wednesday. Just about to go training. I can remember it in detail, strangely enough.

Rob: Were you panicking?

Dougie Walker: No, because I knew I'd done nothing wrong. I knew there was no danger of anything that could be adverse in my system, so at the time I was thinking - find out what's wrong. It's not an issue. We'll sit down and work it out.

Rob: How were you explaining it away to yourself?

Dougie Walker: I wasn't really, I was just very confident that I would know where it was from. I'm very careful, as I say, of what I was taking. I'm not daft. I don't sort of mess around with my system, so I was fairly confident that this would come to light - where the actual source was.

Rob: Was Nandrolone a word that was familiar to you?

Dougie Walker: Not at the time, no, not at all. I hadn't heard of it. I only got informed it was an anabolic steroid on the Friday when the letter came through.

Rob: What were the immediate implications for you of failing?

Dougie Walker: Just the thought that I wasn't really going to be able to compete, I suppose, my name had been been muddied. I knew it was going to be a long sort of process to.. to get it resolved. That was it. It was very scary to think that I would always be associated with the thing that I'd never really wanted to be associated with.

Rob: And how - and immediately presumably for you - it was clearing your name?

Dougie Walker: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. That's always been first and foremost really. The athletics is always second. I mean it's going to come and go. I mean I'm going to be giving up athletics either way at about 31, but of course I'm always going to be stuck with this name - I don't want to be associated with this for the next thirty, forty years - all these people look back at my career and think 'Oh that's that Dougie Walker' sort of thing. I need to get that resolved. I'm not comfortable with it at all.

Rob: It was no consolation to Dougie Walker to discover he wasn't alone. Last year nearly 350 competitors from a range of sports tested positive for Nandrolone. Walker himself was cleared by the UK authorities who accepted his pleas of innocence. But the International Athletics Federation said that because Nandrolone had been found in his system, Walker must be banned until December 2000 - three months after the Olympics. Those responsible for running sport are looking for answers.

David Moorcroft, Chief Executive, UK Athletics: There are a number of possible explanations. One is that you've got, you know, an increased number of athletes who are deliberately trying to cheat and we don't think that's the case. Another explanation is that there's some substances that they're taking, supplements or whatever, that have these precursors in them.

Another one is that other things are triggering off natural levels of Nandrolone that previously we hadn't considered. I think, because there's so many, and because of the way in which it has evolved, it's desperately important now that the scientists lead the process and I think we're making big progress now to recognising that there is something of an anomaly here, and really let the scientists find out exactly what is happening and then we can get.. put it into, you know, absolutely proper context.

Rob: That was the job for a committee of fifteen scientific experts, set up by governing body UK Sport. The Nandrolone Review, published in January of this year, considered all the possibilities.

Michele Verroken, UK Sport: They were able to say, look, you know, let's be clear. The collection procedure, certainly in this country, would not lead to those Nandrolone findings. The analytical procedures are sound, and the sources of Nandrolone are most likely to be either injectable forms of Nandrolone or we do know that Nandrolone or its precursors can be found in certain nutritional supplements, sports supplements, that are easily obtained either through the internet or really just to go and purchase them through any of these body-building magazines.

Rob: The committee concluded that the use by athletes of supplements was the most likely source of the Nandrolone. The supplements industry has a huge market amongst body-builders, but most athletes also require supplements, like vitamins and isotonic drinks to replenish the loss of body fluids and nutrients during intensive training. Such products are perfectly legal under Olympic rules. The anabolic steroids, so popular with body-builders, are not.

Rob: Do you think you might be guilty of stupidity at any point in this, in terms of making a huge mistake and not being knowledgeable enough about food supplements and the medical and the scientific side of athletics?

Dougie Walker: Perhaps personally I'm not that clued up on it but I have gone to the right people to look into it, and I can't use any better people than I have used to discover the right sort of things to take and not take. So I've got the best advice and I've taken the best advice. You can't hope to look into everything.

You've got to take people on their word, I guess, and if these products that you're taking have certain substances listed within them that are legal, then you only take them on their word, you can't test everything you take. It would be like going to a restaurant and saying, 'Oh go and test this steak for me before I eat it, just in case there's something dodgy in it'. You have to take people's word for what's in it is in it. And that's all you can do.

Rob: So you were happy you had taken enough steps to ensure that this was not a gamble?

Dougie Walker: Yes, absolutely. There was never any sort of question that it could have been a gamble that I was taking, no. It was all standard stuff.

Rob: At the time Dougie Walker was sponsored by Maximuscle, one of the biggest of the supplements companies. They also sponsored Mark Richardson and Gary Cadogan who, like Walker, have tested positive for Nandrolone. Maximuscle Products carry warnings to athletes to avoid using any supplements which contain steroids, such as 19-NOR which is on the IOC list of banned substances and which can produce Nandrolone in the body.

Are athletes gambling when they take dietary supplements?

Zef Eisenberg, Director, Maximuscle Ltd: Dietary supplements are a necessity for any hard and intense training athlete. However, if athletes stick to supplements which they know are safe and approved, such as protein powders, carbohydrate powders, and avoid the products they know they're not allowed to take - such as the 19-NOR supplement - they will not have a problem. However, if they decide to go and take 19-NOR supplements behind the scenes without telling anyone, thinking that they can then go and beat the test, they're going to have problems.

Rob: Do you think that happens?

Zef Eisenberg: It is without a doubt that there are a few in any industry, unscrupulous individuals who believe that they can beat the test by doing various things. If obviously their methods fail, then what we've seen come around now, which has been year in, year out, is that these athletes try and blame every single possible cause of explanation as to why they got the Nandrolone.

However, it seems to be that none of them are ever innocent. I can't talk for the rest of the industry. I have to care about Maximuscle and our products. We're one hundred per cent confident that our products are tested, we can give written guarantees showing the safety and efficiency and the products that won't cause a banned test, and that is what we have to concern ourselves with.

Rob: What the Nandrolone Review Committee had to concern itself with was whether assurances from the supplements industry were enough.

Dr Mike Wheeler, Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital: The trouble with dietary supplements is that they are uncontrolled drugs, if you like. The requirements of their preparation is not fully monitored. They don't go through the QA procedures that a pharmaceutical company would need to go through. And so therefore we are uncertain about the care with which they're prepared and how much control there is to stop cross-contamination.

Rob: In the search for an answer, Dougie Walker tested the Maximuscle products he was using. All were clear and legal. So how could the banned substance have got into his system? New scientific evidence suggests that the answer could lie elsewhere. Athletes competing in events and during intensive periods of training appear to be capable of producing Nandrolone at levels close to or higher than the limits accepted by the International Olympic Committee, the IOC.

Michele Verroken: We've always known that fatty tissue breaks down through exercise, and that if Nandrolone's held there, of course it could actually be excreted. It's the source coming into the athlete's body that is most of concern to us. We do not see high levels of Nandrolone findings appearing normally throughout, you know, the vast majority of samples that have been analysed year in, year out, through the laboratories themselves.

Rob: The IOC limit is 2 nanograms per milliletre for men and 5 for women. A body-builder injecting Nandrolone would have a level of 500 nanograms. In the most recent UK cases, athletes have tested positive for levels between three and twenty. Dougie Walker's result was 12 nanograms. According to some leading scientists, such levels of Nandrolone are easily explained.

Dr Simon Davis, Laurence Berkeley National Labs, California: There are three papers which have specifically studied the area of how much naturally produced Nandrolone metabolites occur within the urine, and these have all unanimously come to the conclusion that the diminimus level, the cut-off point for the IOC, should be set at about 100 nanograms per milliletre - that's fifty times greater than they currently stand.

And one paper actually shows that natural production can be as high as 37 nanograms per milliletre - and that's eighteen and a half times higher than the present level used by UK Sports and UK Athletics to ban athletes. And we have a whole range of other problems. I mean, for instance, it's been shown that exercise increases the concentrations of Nandrolone metabolites by 300% so if you tested after training, you have a far higher chance of failing a test.

Rob: On the evening of December 1998 when Dougie Walker tested positive, he'd just returned from a weight session. He was training six days a week.

Dougie Walker: I got tested again twice subsequently. The actual night I got informed about the testing failure on the 6th of January, there was another drugs guy came round to test just to sort or maybe back up their first test, to find out if it was true or not, and so I got tested again then on the 6th. And then again on the 10th - just, I think they were trying to reinforce their test results.

And both of them came back negative, there was nothing adverse at all in them which we thought at the time was hopeful. And then again in February, we decided to go ahead and have a blood test done, which is supposed to find out in much greater detail, and go back further than natural urine samples - I think it goes back three or four months - to find out if there was any adverse. And that came up completely blank as well, completely clean.

Dr Simon Davis: In general, if an athlete tests positive at one point in time but is clear on previous and subsequent tests, it doesn't surprise me at all because the evidence which has been shown is that the level of these metabolites is hugely variable. If I just take an individual on a single day, the concentrations might change by 72%. And if we look at them over a longer period, say 12 weeks, it's been shown that the concentrations can change by over 680%. And this had been shown in very limited studies, and I conceivably see that this level of variation could be a lot higher than that when we've actually had time to really, really look at the variations over time.

Rob: Dr Davis has now devised a test which will confirm whether Nandrolone has been produced synthetically or naturally. His research could play a significant part in establishing if athletes have set out to cheat.

Dr Simon Davis: I have to take the results which I've found, I have to send them for peer review, they have to be published; then other scientists can look at what I've discovered and what I've developed and can criticise my work, refine it and - after a number of reviews - produce a test which is sound and which will stand up to any form of critical review. And this is a process which the IOC are not doing. This diminimus level, this threshold level which is mooted by the IOC and UK Sports has no scientific basis, it's had no scientific review, has never been published, and only after they started banning people are they starting to put this.. this test to critical review, to peer review panels. And really it's just not good enough if you're going to destroy someone's career.

Rob: But have the IOC got it wrong? In a scientific survey at the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998, 621 competitors - male and female - from a range of different disciplines and sports were tested for Nandrolone. None of the tests exceeded the IOC limits of 2 nanograms for men and 5 for women. Support, say the IOC, for the argument that Nandrolone does not occur naturally at higher levels, but like all of the data collected from samples taken in IOC labs across the world, the Nagano Report - this key study to which so much importance is attached - has not been made available for scientific scrutiny.

Rob: You mentioned the Nagano Study, but the full findings of the Nagano Study weren't made available to the UK Sport Review?

Michele Verroken: Well certainly we were able to obtain that data. What we want to make sure is that they are.. that that sort of data is published so that everybody can see it and share it and not just the Nagano Review Committee have benefited from that knowledge.

Rob: Did the Review Committee see the full findings?

Michele Verroken: The Review Committee saw the findings that were available from that study.

Rob: But not the full findings?

Michele Verroken: I'm not sure if they saw the full findings, em.

Rob: Because there was a line in the Report which said that they hadn't had full sight of the complete study.

Michele Verroken: They wanted the full information - that's absolutely right. They wanted the full information. But in the same way, other studies that have er.. been brought into the public domain are usually reported in summary in any case.

Dr Mike Wheeler, Nandrolone Review Committee: It was almost hearsay. It was a little bit better than hearsay because we were told that this was established data. But again, because the scientists didn't have the opportunity to see the data, and to see how reliable it was, how long after an event samples had been taken, what controls were put into the study, then, yes, it is not a good way of establishing profound statements. The science is almost non-existent when you come to trying to establish what is normal and what is abnormal. Whether exercise puts up levels or whether the exercise has no effect at all. So there is a great chasm in terms of scientific information.

Rob: And it could be that this lack of science may not be confined to Nandrolone?

Dr Simon Davis: There's a whole suite of steroids which are produced naturally within the human body, and every single one of these has, we have doubt over what the natural production is and how much is excreted in the urine, and what external factors affect the production of these steroids, so all these steroids have to be re-evaluated and looked at. I mean, it's a minefield. When I first initially started looking at this subject area, I was amazed at how poor the science was and I'm very worried as to what's actually going to be the end result of this because it is so complex and because so many people have been banned on the basis of evidence from poor science.

Rob: There are many more questions than answers surrounding the Nandrolone controversy. Where is the science at either end of this complex equation? Frontline has come to the Swiss city of Lausanne, to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, the body which set the Nandrolone limit beyond which an athlete is deemed to be guilty. Dr Patrick Schamasch is one of the leading figures in the campaign to make sport drug-free. He's the Medical Director of the International Olympic Committee. Would the IOC change the level from 2 nanograms were it to consider that the science and the scientific evidence wasn't accurate enough?

Dr Patrick Schamasch, Medical Director, IOC: Well of course, of course. The IOC and its Sub-Commission is open to anything, you know. If we have a proof that something may occur, we would be foolish not to recount it. We have established something and for the moment, you know, the burden of the proof is not on our side - we will not change anything unless we have something very, very, very new which proves something. And we will reconsider. We're open. The Sub-Commission and the Medical Commission have been always, always open to any, any kind of discussion as long as we have real proof to change it, and a real need to change it.

Rob: Are you concerned about the shadow which Nandrolone is currently casting over sport?

Dr Patrick Schamasch: Well no, the shadow doesn't exist. The shadow doesn't exist.

Rob: Tell that to the athletes! Under the existing rules of International Athletics, strict liability applies. If you're tested positive, you're guilty - end of story. Diane Modahl, the Commonwealth 800 metres champion refused to accept the results of a positive test for testosterone and took her case to law. She won, and the damages bankrupted the British Athletics Federation.

Commentator: Also going well is Attenay of Italy, but Walker coming away. And it's Walker with maximum points for Great Britain. Walker wins it!

Rob: Now it's not just scientists who are raising questions about IOC levels and testing procedures, lawyers too are seeking answers to establish the innocence of their clients and protect the hugely lucrative opportunities that are now available to the top stars of track and field. Were the IOC to change the threshold level for Nandrolone, it could be a costly U-turn for them, couldn't it?

Frank Dick, Former UK Olympic Team Coach: Oh it certainly would, because you're talking about retrospective litigation at that point and I think you'd have a queue of people standing at the door saying 'Your science was wrong and I want my million' - and you're right, that would break the back of all sport.

Rob: Would that sort of series of legal actions then make what happened with Diane Modahl pale into insignificance?

Frank Dick: Well it certainly would here, but on a world scale - if you think of the world tests that have proved positive or whatever - then it would be so seriously damaging I couldn't imagine sport surviving.

Commentator: Dougie Walker settling in, making sure everything's right, every last detail is right.

Rob: The countdown to the Olympics is well under way and Nandrolone is already playing an unwelcome part in the build-up. In athletics there's confusion and there are casualties. The Olympic dream of Dougie Walker and others is dying. As doubts persist about the scientific evidence which leads to these convictions, the suspicion remains that innocent victims are paying the price. It's a punishment that could last a lifetime.

Commentator: Dougie Walker is becoming a very fine competitor. He has such talent. He looks so strong.

Dougie Walker: I can't really remember a time when this wasn't hanging over me, I suppose. I can't remember what it feels like not to have something sort of haunting me. The last two years were supposed to be my prime couple of years but I'm still quite young, I'm only 26, and yes, I'd like to think that I could come back and definitely do something. Definitely be remembered for my running rather than this sort of whole episode.

Rob: Can you contemplate failure and being labelled a "drugs cheat" for the rest of your days?

Dougie Walker: No, not something I really want to think about. The hardest thing is thinking that I'd always be associated with that, having to explain if I ever had children - I'm sure I will have children - and explain why Daddy's been associated with this. It's not something I ever thought I'd ever have to deal with when I was younger. I don't see why I should have to deal with it now.

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