By ANNE-MARIE GARCÍA*
SUMMER is traditionally the high season for sports, filled with triumphs and records, joy and celebration, goals and dreams. In 1998, however, the high spirits of the season were dampened, perhaps more than ever, by the problem of drug use.
For the first time ever, for example, the law was forced to intervene in the Tour de France cycling race, with the winning team’s coaches and Italian racer Mapei taken into custody.
French Minister of Sport, Marie-Gourges Buffet, a Communist Party member, is heading up the battle against illegal drug use in France, as she told L’Equipe magazine last year. “On November 18 I’m going to present a bill in the National Assembly against illegal drug use.”
And in Italy, where there is still speculation about the results of drug tests at last year’s soccer World Cup and the Brazilian’s performance in the final game, a new doping scandal erupted.
Torino Judge Raffaelle Guariniello revealed how results were manipulated at the Acquatosa testing laboratory in Rome, the world’s largest. The lab has been shut down and the President of the Italian Olympic Committee, Mario Pescante, has resigned from his post. His conduct while President is now being investigated.
Dr Jean-Paul Escande, co-president of a group of doctors organised by the French Sports Minister to help in the fight against illegal drug use, has made some chilling declarations.
“Some of the things being done now are frightening”, he warned. “If this isn’t stopped, within two or three years we’ll be seeing dozens of deaths [of athletes] between the ages of 35 and 40.”
At the last general assembly of the Pan American Sports Organisation (PASO), the use of illegal substances was one of the issues on the agenda, and the decision was made to create an agency to deal with this scourge.
Cuba supported the decision and the President of the Cuban Olympic Committee, Jose Ramon Fernandez, has called on the international sports community to adopt strong measures aimed at eliminating drug use once and for all.
In a statement the Cuban Minister advocated “an in-depth investigation of the problem.”
Among the causes leading to illegal drug use in sports, he cited “a lack of education and ethics” as well as “marketing, ambition, glory and money.”
He added that the blame for the problem is shared by “the Olympic leaders who allow it to happen, the businesses and advertising agencies who spur athletes on by offering millions for product endorsements, and the doctors who essentially tolerate the problem by not monitoring and controlling it properly.”
Many countries have proposed legislation against illegal drug use in sports, such as France and Italy. At the same time sports organisations are studying the adoption of stricter measures.
Nevertheless, the Sports Ministers of Australia and France expressed shock over statements made by International Olympic Committee President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, who declared: “If there is medical monitoring and the products used artificially enhance performance but do not endanger the athlete’s health, then they might not be considered as doping.”
As Dr Escande told L’Equipe, “Doctors are capable of seeing everything. They are aware of the changes in athletes who start using illegal substances. The problem is that sometimes the suspicions aren’t backed up by test results.”
Belgian Willy Voet, the massage therapist for Festina, the team disqualified from the Tour de France, spent 16 days in prison for his complicity in the team’s organised use of illegal drugs.
“When the doctor in charge of doing the blood tests arrived at 6.30”, Voet explained, “the racers knew they had until 8.15 before they had to be tested. They would inject a litre of water into their bloodstream, with 0.09 per cent sodium solution and 20 minutes later their hematocrit percentage would drop.”
The hematocrit level is the percentage of red blood cells in a given volume of blood. The average is around 43 per cent, but it is generally lower in the case of athletes because they consume a great deal of oxygen. When a test result is higher than 43 per cent doping is suspected.
The cyclists were taking erythropoietin or EPO, a synthetic hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells. This aids the oxygenation of the thigh muscles, enhances performance and promotes quicker recovery.
When taken by a healthy individual EPO can lead to blood clots, hemorrhaging, kidney damage and other problems. Incredibly enough no one tested positive for EPO in the Tour de France, despite the fact that the Festina team members confessed to using it. According to Dr Escande, “There are many ways of testing for EPO use, but they have chosen the one that gives the poorest results.”
The IOC has established a list of prohibited substances, but there are doubts regarding some others. Such is the case with synthetic creatine. Creatine is an amino acid produced in minute amounts in the liver, kidneys and pancreas. Synthetic creatine contributes to muscle development, but the effects of long-term use are still unknown.
Creatine is the focus of a doping scandal in Italian soccer. Some players have admitted to using it, as has one of the stars of the World Cup winning French team.
French Sports Minister Buffet states that athletes “are victims of a system”, although she prefers to refer to them as “instruments” so as not to absolve them of all responsibility.
The director of Cuba’s Sports Medicine Institute, Mario Granda, has called for the establishment of “generalised criteria applied equally to all athletes.”
The problem is that every country has its own attitudes with regard to performance-enhancing substances. In both France and Italy, as a result of judicial intervention, laws are being drafted against the practice.
* *Granma newspaper, Havana, undated. Anne-Marie García also writes for Associated Press and IPS.