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Keeping up with the Marion Joneses

Health Wanted


Published August 18, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Chances are bookies aren't betting their drachma on Green Mountain gold from the 2004 Games. There are plenty of Winter Olympians in Vermont's hills, but the state is represented by just one person in Athens: 22-year-old Brett Heyl. The whitewater kayaker was born in Norwich, went to school in Waitsfield -- and promptly moved south for more favorable training grounds.

Still, Heyl -- recently named team captain and a top contender for a medal -- is officially ours, according to the Olympic roster. And as far as we know, he's drug-free.

By contrast, California boasts 145 athletes in Athens, and at least one of them, Marion Jones, is under investigation for possible drug use. She can run, but she can't hide from anti-doping experts who have proclaimed that even the Sydney medals Jones won four years ago may be at risk if she is charged.

For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, the scientists are practically as prominent as the athletes. The problem escalated last summer, when a coach surreptiously sent a syringe filled with the designer steroid THG to anti-doping officials. Its manufacturer, BALCO, was associated with numerous athletes, including Jones. The scandal signaled the extent, and the sophistication, of the abuse.

It's all hanging over Athens like the stench of moldy moussaka. In the days leading up to Opening Ceremony, six athletes from various teams had been "named and shamed" by their respective nations. On a higher level, the International Olympic Committee had already announced the first official doping case of the Games: Kenyan boxer David Munyasia was KO'd when he tested positive for the banned stimulant cathine.

And these are the athletes who made it to Athens; many more are stuck at home exercising the TV remote control on account of doping charges. Track-and-field superstars Tim Montgomery -- boyfriend of Marion Jones -- and Kelli White are both sidelined. Regina Jacobs, who "won" the 1500-meter national title a dozen times, has been suspended for four years.

Behind the busts is a Montreal-based force called the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, which is alternately praised and blasted for its efforts. Founded in 1999, WADA is a coalition of scientists, doctors and international sport officials that aims to standardize anti-doping laws and penalties across all sports and all countries. It's a monumental task, considering that doping has been a part of sports for centuries.

The word "doping" derives from grape-skin wine called dop, which Zulu warriors swilled to become more ferocious. Athletes have snorted coke, injected themselves with strychnine and even done shooters of brandy to get an edge on the competition -- the drug of choice just depended on the day. Now there are thousands of chemicals that help us go swifter, higher and stronger. One of the newest is human growth hormone, or HGH, which beefs up bones and muscles and is virtually undetectable.

Or is it? Last Thursday, one day before Opening Ceremony, WADA chief Dick Pound announced that HGH-pumped athletes in Athens are not immune. "We have a test," he said during a news conference in which he predicted Jones would land in a dark, deep hole if found guilty. Pound, who is a Canadian, was subsequently called un-American.

The fact is that an increasing number of American boys and girls are taking illegal steroids and legal substances that act like steroids when metabolized. They jack up muscles, trigger aggressive behavior and allow athletes to hit the gym, track or pool harder and longer than ever before.

But steroids can also turn a budding Adonis into a pimple-pocked Medusa. In males, side effects include hardened testicles, acne, boobs and balding. Women can look forward to whiskers, bloating and a lifetime of answering the question, "Sir, may I take your order?" Then there's the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, liver and kidney damage and immune-system breakdown.

Despite these dangers, steroids are hotter than ever. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that as many as half a million kids under age 18 are taking illegal anabolic substances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that the number of females using steroids jumped 140 percent from 1999 to 2003. Yet another study estimates that as many as 2 million teenagers take supplements; they may seem harmless on the shelves of nutrition stores, but many are toxic cocktails. And many of the users aren't even athletes -- they just want to look better.

"Their parents may be unwittingly contributing to their behavior by saying, 'Johnny, you never looked so good. Your baby fat's gone, you're filling out, you're a little more assertive at the dinner table,'" says WADA member Gary Wadler, an American College of Sports Medicine physician and clinical medicine professor in Indianapolis. "The parents think they're complimenting an adolescent, and in fact they may be complimenting a steroid abuser and feeding into it."

Because there are not nearly enough white-coated officials within the international WADA to draw blood samples from hordes of high schoolers, members of the agency worked with other groups to found Coalition for Anabolic Steroid Precursor and Ephedra Regulation in April 2003. Its mission: to ban the bars, drinks and powders that contain precursors from readily available sources, and to have such substances regulated through prescriptions. The Anabolic Steroid Control Act passed through the House in June and is now in the Senate.

But will making the stuff illegal reduce its popularity? There's now a $400 million black market for illegal steroids, available to just about anyone who can fill out an online registration form.

"Part of the solution is drug testing, part of the solution is regulation and law... and a long-term way to deal with this is to change our ethics system," Wadler continues. "We've got to do something with the demand end. And since we know that 2.5 percent of eighth-graders abuse anabolic steroids, you've got to start in elementary schools."

In the world of competitive sports, however, ethics lessons won't fly with some athletes, coaches and countries obsessed with the gold. Max Cobb, marketing director for the Colchester-based International Biathlon Union, suspects he's already seen the horizon of doping: artificial hemoglobin. Developed by the U.S. military to treat battlefield injuries, says Cobb, the stuff appeals to endurance athletes because it carries oxygen to the muscles. But it also can be masked by injecting a few liters of saline solution; if anti-doping officials call for an out-of-competition test with advance warning -- one of WADA's techniques -- the athletes have enough time to hide the evidence and get away with it, even with open IV sites on their arms.

"We support WADA's work 110 percent -- we just want more," says Cobb, who'd like to see stiffer penalties for abusers, "so that young athletes out there don't think the only way to the top is with a needle and a bag of blood."

He views the doping issue as a matter of fairness. "Scores of honest athletes are being seriously disadvantaged by dozens of cheaters." He still believes in the Olympic Spirit, though. "For all of us, the athletes, staff and volunteers, it's the belief that there are still champions who are doing this clean."