Dopers are always one step ahead of the testers

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The Independent Online
JUST WHEN you thought it was safe to go back to the athletics track, the sport has once again been plunged into controversy over doping and drugs testing - with every sign that the crisis can only deepen.

Just days after Dougie Walker, the European 200 metres champion, was cleared of using a banned anabolic steroid, it was yesterday revealed that Linford Christie, the grand daddy of British athletics, had fallen foul of the same test and has been suspended, pending investigation. Christie protested his innocence and determination to prove it.

Just a year ago the Olympic gold medalist successfully won a libel action against accusations of drug taking, when the effectiveness of the testing procedure was the major plank in his case.

Now he will have to show that something has gone wrong. Following the Dougie Walker case, he will have a wealth of evidence at his disposal. The disciplinary committee last week found that it was impossible to prove that traces of the steroid nandrolone in Walker's disputed urine sample had come from a banned substance. It concluded that "the ingestion of a substance was of a wholly innocent and accidental nature".

This came after months of investigation in which it was found that the traces could have been produced by two other substances which were not banned.

But if the testing authorities. can't even find nandrolone with any confidence, which was previously thought to be one of the easiest banned drugs to detect, then what hope do they have of holding the line against ever-more sophisticated doping techniques?

The smart money is already said to be on human growth hormone, which is much more expensive than traditional steroids but produces many of the same effects of dramatic increases in muscle bulk. It is also banned by sporting authorities, but there is no test for it.

Eryphropoietin (EPO) is another banned substance, which led to much of the drama at last year's Tour de France when a stash of it was found heading its way to the start line. It allows improved recovery from extreme exercise. But again, it is currently undetectable.

On the other hand, creatine is a naturally occurring substance that has been widely used by runners and rugby teams for years, and is now increasingly used in football, rowing and swimming. Its performance-enhancing properties are widely acknowledged and documented, but it is not banned as it is classed as a legal food supplement.

For some, this last substance presents the most interesting ethical dilemma which could yet undermine the whole doping system. Rob Dawson is the doctor in charge of a clinic in Durham, which treats mainly body builders using performance-enhancing drugs, and he is beginning to question the logic of testing.

"In creatine you have a readily available, relatively cheap agent which has been proven to be effective in 70% of people, yet it is perfectly legal. So it has already been accepted that athletes are allowed to take performance-enhancing substances," he said.

"So really the authorities are just negotiating over how far they are prepared to go.

"Perhaps the time has come to forget about testing and concentrate of safeguarding the health of athletes by allowing them to admit to what else they are taking."