TV show that tests drugs on athletes sparks official fury

Channel 4 criticised over programme showing effects of doping
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A controversial television experiment in which amateur sportsmen are injected with anabolic steroids to test their effectiveness has been branded "irresponsible" by UK Sport, the official body that deals with drug testing.

A controversial television experiment in which amateur sportsmen are injected with anabolic steroids to test their effectiveness has been branded "irresponsible" by UK Sport, the official body that deals with drug testing.

The production company behind Cheating at Athens - Is it Worth It?, to be screened on Channel 4 on Thursday, a day ahead of the opening ceremony at the Athens Olympics, deny the allegation.

They say the programme forms a groundbreaking scientific experiment into the effects of taking performance-enhancing drugs.

The doctor who carried out the experiments told The Independent on Sunday yesterday there were risks involved but they were worth it because of the value of the results the programme has thrown up. Cheating at Athens will show the damaging side-effects of taking steroids and other such drugs, which include depression, hair loss, increased aggression and shrinking of the testes.

Amateur athletes - many regular gym-goers - from the UK, Australia, United States, Canada and New Zealand spent six weeks at a secret training camp near Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia, where they were monitored by doctors from an Australian university.

Of the 24 guinea pigs - all men - 18 received regular injections. Nine were given steroids, while the other half were injected with a harmless placebo. Crucially, neither the athletes, coaches, nor scientists running the experiment knew which athletes had been injected with anabolic steroids. The other six men were given legal performance-enhancing drugs, such as creatine, caffeine and colostrum. The final results have in part surprised the scientists. In some cases, those men injected with a placebo did better over six weeks than some of those injected with steroids, indicating that some of the effects of steroids might be in the mind or else that steroids do not work for all athletes.

UK Sport last night poured scorn on the programme-makers' claims that it was a worthwhile scientific experiment. A spokesman said: "We certainly have issues about the principles surrounding the programme. It troubles us, particularly from an ethical and health point of view.

"It's just irresponsible. What sort of message does that send out to young, up-and-coming athletes?"

A spokesman for the programme's producers, Mentorn, denied that it was irresponsible, pointing out that it highlighted the side-effects to taking steroids more than their performance-enhancing qualities. "It should make anyone watching think very seriously about the potential harm they may do to themselves by taking these drugs."

The experiment was overseen by Robert Weatherby, a leading doping expert at Southern Cross University in New South Wales. Dr Weatherby admitted that the volunteers had been put at risk but claimed it was worth it. "There is always a risk," he said. "But if we want to find out more about such drugs we really don't have any choice but to administer it to people in the safest possible way."

After three weeks of intense training and injections, several athletes began to feel the effects. Dan Davis, 29, an Australian, saw a dramatic increase in the amount he could lift in the gym. "It does feel good," he said. "I'm 95 per cent certain I'm on the steroids. It makes you more outgoing."

Not everyone was happy, though. One athlete worried the steroids had made him more angry, while another said: "I don't really like the person I'm becoming."

"Big Dan", from Canada, was so worried that his mood swings and acne were caused by steroids that he decided to leave the programme after four weeks. It was only once he had left the experiment that Dr Weatherby informed him that he had actually been given the placebo. Mentorn had invited UK Sport to be involved, but the government body declined.

The programme, which will also be screened in Australia, has come under heavy criticism there. Two of Australia's greatest Olympians, swimmers Dawn Fraser and Kieran Perkins, have warned the programme may encourage young people to take steroids. Michele Verokken, one of the world's leading authorities on anti-doping, who used to be head of drug testing for UK Sport, said that despite concerns over the ethics of such a programme, it could prove to be a worthwhile experiment. She said: "I wouldn't condone the programme as a good way forward, but it might help to get the message through. It could help show these aren't magic potions."