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Lady bowlers face drug test

A DRUGS problem has shaken an unlikely sport - the sedate world of women's bowls.

When the competitors, in their regulation white hats, starched white blouses and white skirts - which must be at least two inches below the knee - gather at Victoria Park, Leamington Spa, later this month for the English Women's Bowls Association's national championships, drug testers from the Sports Council are expected to be there too.

The problem is not anabolic steroids or amphetamines, the curses of more strenuous sports, but beta blockers, drugs routinely prescribed by doctors for people with high blood pressure or heart conditions. They calm tremors that could affect a bowler's performance, so they are on the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances.

Mary Fitzhenry of the Sports Council points out that bowls is a Commonwealth Games sport and the same procedures apply as in the Olympics. 'We are sympathetic to people who are prescribed beta blockers by doctors for genuine medical need,' she said. 'The last thing we want to do is stop anybody playing bowls for fun. But if a person wants to compete at county, national or international level, beta blockers may give an unfair advantage.'

Doctors agree that there are adequate substitutes for beta blockers. 'For most conditions it would be perfectly possible to find an alternative that doesn't give a player undue advantage,' said Dr Hardial Singh, a consultant cardiologist from Coventry.

The Sports Council's drug control officer held a lengthy meeting with the administrators of women's bowls in April. A letter will go out in September emphasising that a specific reference to beta blockers must be included in the sport's regulations.

'There is still concern about bowls,' said Ms Fitzhenry. 'We don't feel that they are taking the issue seriously enough.'

Nancie Colling, secretary of the English Women's Bowls Association, disagrees. She says there were 36 drugs tests at men's and women's bowls tournaments last year and not one was positive - clear evidence that the association has met all the requirements demanded of it. 'The rules and regulations are written into our yearbook. If anybody playing at representative level has a banned drug prescribed to them, they have to get a substitute.'

There is more at stake than the good name of the sport. If the Sports Council is not satisfied with the measures that the association takes, it could withdraw its pounds 10,000 annual grant to women's bowls.

Ms Fitzhenry said: 'It's no good having a few lines about drugs in the rule book. The governing body must implement a drug control programme.'