Live fast, die young

Barely had Ben Johnson fled Seoul than Flo-Jo, his female counterpart, was making a further mockery of the sport
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The Independent Culture
THE EARLY death of the extraordinary sprinter Florence Griffith- Joyner, almost ten years to the day since the first of her three gold medals at the Olympic Games in Seoul, has raised again all the old suggestions that her success was based on performance enhancing drugs.

Indeed her very death at 38 has aroused the spectre - so worrying to many another athlete who has done the same thing - that this too was due to drugs. It was ironic that, on the same day as her death, the man with whom she will be perpetually linked in the annals of athletic speedsters, Ben Johnson was in a Toronto court trying to get his life-ban for sports drug taking overturned. He was unsuccessful, and will remain, even more than the whole East German state-controlled doping system and the demonised Chinese athletes, the scapegoat for doping in Olympic sports, particularly athletics. The only difference in many people's minds, including this writer's, is that Johnson was caught.

Although many people might doubt it, journalists, like second-hand car salesmen and politicians, are human too.

When we see great performances, we respond enthusiastically. Yet the silence that invaded the press box in the Seoul stadium, when Griffith- Joyner ran a record-shattering 21.34 seconds to win the Olympic 200 metres 10 years ago was not awestruck, it was despairing.

Barely had Johnson fled Seoul in disgrace when his female peer was making a further mockery of the sport.

I first met Griffith-Joyner in 1985, when she was already a world championships silver medallist, albeit far from being as quick as the likes of her colleague, Evelyn Ashford, and a variety of East German sprinters, such as Marlies Gohr, Silke Gladisch and Heike Drechsler. At that time, Flo-Jo as she was nick-named later, at the height of her fame, was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, petite, oval-faced with unblemished skin.

It would be three years before I would get as close to her again, in Seoul 1988, by which time she had metamorphosed. Apart from the overall muscular definition and diminution of breasts, her jaw had elongated, a condition called acromegaly, known to be an effect of Human Growth Hormone.

She wore thick pan-stick make-up, to cover the widespread acne, a side- effect of male hormones, and her voice had deepened substantially.

But she was not the only woman competitor in Seoul manifesting such startling changes. There was a British performer among them.

That, perhaps, as much as the sacrifice of Johnson, prompted the International Olympic Committee and International Amateur Athletic Federation to tighten up their drug-testing procedures.

Performances dropped off drastically in those events which benefited most from anabolic steroids.

But Pandora's medicine chest was not going to be closed so easily. Athletes, already earning substantial sums of money, began to invest in the undetectable substances, such as Testosterone, Human Growth Hormone, and later, following the cyclists' lead, Erythropoietin or EPO, the Tour de France drug of choice.

In a professional sportsworld increasingly dominated by television sales and ratings, Ben Johnson's latest manager asks pertinently what message the athletics authorities are giving to competitors when they offer a million dollars for breaking a world record. The response of IAAF President, Primo Nebiolo may be judged from a quote at last year's World Championships in Athens, "I am tired of discussing the problem of doping. I like these great events, these championships with their young people. Spending so much time following the pee-pee (urine testing) for me is not nice".

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in Olympic sports probably began in the mid-1950s on the west coast of the United States. Anabolic steroids had been developed to assist concentration camp victims restore wasted bone.

Body builders soon realised the drugs' potential, and the hammer and discus throwers, and shot putters who attended the muscle beaches soon latched on. It took the authorities until 1975, to institute bans.

In the interim, the Eastern Bloc had responded with their own drugs programmes. The big two-nation matches, USA v USSR were still in vogue at the time, as inter-Olympics competitions. Drugs quickly became the currency of the cold war as it was played out in the Olympic arena.

One of the best witnesses of the outcome of this was Dr Robert Voy, who resigned as Chief Medical Officer of the US Olympic Committee almost ten years ago, when he felt he was being given no encouragement.

In his revelatory book, Drugs, Sport and Politics, Voy wrote, "I understood that many people at the USOC were in the business for one reason: to bring home the gold. Just how the athletes accomplished that - well, few cared."

Voy's book is chock full of instances of US competitors in a variety of sports being exonerated without the offence ever being made public, the corollary to which is, and again this is a personal view, had Ben Johnson been a US rather than a Canadian athlete, he would not have been busted in Seoul, and would either have retired a hero, or even still been competing at 36.

The US Olympic Committee, and the US television networks hold sway over the Olympic movement. Canada comes somewhere down the list, ergo Johnson was expendable. This view was bolstered for many others when Flo-Jo retired barely six months after Seoul, on the threshold of making millions of dollars in appearance money.

Ten years after, performances, inevitably, are creeping up again, or speeding ahead in the case of distance running. That is partly natural, barriers are there to broken, albeit Flo-Jo's and Ben-Jo's remain intact. But drug legislation is weak and divided, for example baseball hero, Mark McGwire can happily take Androstenedione, a relatively weak androgen, to help him slug his record breaking number of home runs, while practically every other sport, Olympic or otherwise bans it.

More frighteningly, Dr Gabriele Rosa, an athletics coach, who used to work with cyclists, recently reported a spate of operations on cyclists, to enlarge their iliac artery (in the hip) to increase blood flow.

"What is more worrying," says Rosa, "is that taking EPO has reached such a level that many cyclists are sleeping with heart-rate monitors. "If their pulse drops below 25 beats a minute, a buzzer wakes them, and they get on an exercise bike to bring it back from the danger zone".

This is due to the thickening of blood caused by EPO, and up to a score of cyclists are believed to have died. Yet this year's Tour de France revelations are due entirely to the French police and judiciary. It should be a rule of thumb that no sports federation be involved in dope testing its competititors, arbitrating the results, or deciding on the penalties. It is even less in their interests to ban miscreants now than it was ten years ago.

At a press conference in Tokyo, immediately after Seoul, the deposed Olympic 100 metres champion, Evelyn Ashford turned on us angrily after another Flo-Jo exposition of the "five-thousand-sit-ups-a-day" reason for improvement. "Why don't you guys write the real story?" demanded Ashford, unaware perhaps of the niceties of libel laws. Well Evelyn, with due respect to the dead, here it is!

The author is at work on a documentary on what makes Kenyans such great runners