Fears over sport's new `legal steroid'

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THE BIGGEST-EVER survey of British sportsmen and women has revealed widespread use of a dietary supplement, creatine, which has similar performance-enhancing effects to steroids but which many experts believe could cause long-term harm.

More than 300 elite competitors responded to a questionnaire drawn up by The Independent about drug use in British sport. Nearly 57 per cent said they had taken creatine, which is marketed as a legal alternative to anabolic steroids. Among rugby league players and weightlifters, the figure was 100 per cent.

Members of the England football team, Arsenal's Double winners, and athletes such as Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and Sally Gunnell are among those who claim to have benefited from this synthetic form of a naturally-occurring muscle builder. But concerns have been voiced over possible side-effects, and this week the International Olympic Committee's medical commission will consider claims that it is unsafe.

A report sent to the IOC by Italian scientists seeks a ban on creatine, claiming it may be harmful. A recent inquiry by the Italian FA concluded that there should be a curb on the use of the substance.

The British Olympic Association refuses to endorse the product because of fears over its long-term effects. Some doctors have suggested it causes kidney damage, while others have linked it with shorter-term problems such as muscle cramping and dehydration.

The Irish Sports Minister, Dr Jim McDaid, said that creatine "should be regarded with profound caution. During my time as a hospital doctor we used to measure the level of creatine in the blood as an indicator of renal failure." Dr McDaid's comments follow concern over the number of Irish rugby players experimenting with creatine.

Andy Robinson, coach to England's most successful rugby union side, Bath, has voiced his own opposition to sporting use of a substance which was originally developed to help the elderly and infirm.

"I'm very seriously concerned that we don't know enough about the long- term effects of creatine and for that very good reason I advise our players not to touch it," he said.

Creatine is big business on both sides of the Atlantic. Maximuscle, one of the firms marketing creatine products in Britain, has seen its turnover double in each of the last five years. It is estimated that total sales in this country of performance enhancing substances are around pounds 20m a year. In the US, sales of creatine last year totalled about $100m (pounds 60m), a figure that is predicted to rise by 20-25 per cent annually.

Dr Paul Greenhaff of Nottingham University, a leading researcher into creatine use, said his team had never been asked to do a detailed study of long-term effects. "It needs to be addressed," he said.

The survey also highlightsanxiety about the effectiveness of the doping control programme. Only one in four believed their sport was "clean".