Battle for control of Olympic drug tests

The Games' ruling body says it will clamp down on doping. But can it be trusted? Paul Lashmar reports

THE scandal-ridden International Olympic Committee has stolen a march on its many critics by launching the first world-wide agency to combat drugs in sport. At an international anti-drugs conference starting tomorrow in Sydney, the IOC will seek to consolidate its coup by ensuring that its newly-formed World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) is in charge of testing athletes for drugs at the Olympics in September.

Critics say this presents the IOC with a conflict of interest, as it runs the Olympics as a business and will now tackle the potentially embarrassing problem of athletes taking drugs at the Games. In the past the IOC has hidden major dope scandals to protect the Games's reputation.

The role of Wada is expected to be the main topic of the drugs summit, which will bring together ministers and officials from 27 countries, including China, Russia and the United States. But with the next Olympics less than a year away, and no other more credible alternative proposed, resistance to the IOC plan is crumbling.

The past 18 months have seen one drugs scandal after another in sport. July 1998 saw the unedifying spectacle of the French police carrying out raids on Tour de France teams. Tests on cyclists showed traces of cannabis, amphetamines, steroids and human growth hormone, plus the current drug of choice, EPO (erythropoietin). It was the police and court authorities which uncovered the scandal, not the relevant sporting bodies.

Shortly afterwards a Chinese woman swimmer was suspended for four years after carrying banned drugs in her luggage to the world championships in Australia. Four other Chinese swimmers received two-year bans for using banned substances.

The IOC, which started drug testing at the 1968 Olympics, acknowledges that drug use is escalating. "30 years later, it has unfortunately become clear that ... doping is spreading at terrifying rate," the organisation has said.

Both European Union ministers and President Bill Clinton's drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, have been highly critical of the IOC, and wanted the creation of an independent agency. In February Britain's then sports minister, Tony Banks, said he and his EU colleagues unanimously opposed the proposed composition of the agency. But last week the EU Commissioner for Sport, Viviane Reding, said her talks with the IOC's Spanish president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, had brought them closer to agreement.

Gen McCaffrey complained earlier this year that the IOC's legitimacy has been damaged by "alleged corruption, lack of accountability and the failure in leadership". Effective action against drugs was vital: "We have to protect the belief of 12-year-olds that you don't have to use drugs and there will be a level playing field if you choose to compete." Gen McCaffrey is attending this week's conference, but it is not yet clear whether the US will bow to the IOC's fait accompli. The Australian government also wanted an independent agency, and proposed that it should run drug testing at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The IOC opposed this behind the scenes, arguing that it never allowed government involvement in running the Olympics. This, it said, would break the terms under which the 2000 Olympics were awarded to Sydney.

"Australia's position remains that the agency's operations must be open and transparent," the country's minister of sport, Jack Kelly, said last week. His government says it will bring criminal charges against any athlete who brings performance-enhancing drugs into the country - the first time such a threat has been made.

When IOC plans for the new agency were announced at the beginning of the year, the 78-year-old Mr Samaranch let it be known that he would like to run it. But Mr Samaranch's failure to prevent corruption in the IOC ruined his chances, as did an interview he gave to a Spanish newspaper, in which he suggested the list of banned drugs should be sharply cut and punishment limited to those cases in which the athlete is physically harmed. Instead the IOC has appointed its vice-chairman, Dick Pound, a Canadian lawyer, to head Wada. Mr Pound ran the special investigation into last year's allegations of corruption in the IOC, which led to the resignation or expulsion of ten IOC members earlier this year.

The IOC has put $25m (pounds 15m) into Wada, and has proposed lifetime bans and fines of up to $1m for serious offenders. But its reputation for catching illegal dope-users is poor.

Most notoriously, from the 1960s to the 1980s the East German state ran a systematic covert drug programme that allowed East German athletes, particularly swimmers, to win large numbers of Olympic medals. Former East German swimming coaches were eventually prosecuted.

Less than a tenth of one per cent of athletes have ever been tested positive at any Olympiad, a statistic that defies credibility when the use of drugs in sport is known to be rampant.

"Their philosophy is: don't do too much, don't catch too many," said Arnold Beckett, a member of the IOC drugs team from 1968 to 1993. "Make sure not to get gold medal winners. Don't discredit your sport."

INSIDE LINES, SPORT, PAGE 2

MICHELLE SMITH-DE BRUIN

Ireland's triple Olympic swimming champion, Michelle Smith-de Bruin, 29, was given a four-year ban for manipulating a urine sample before a random test. Her appeal last June failed. She won three medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

PETR KORDA

Czech tennis star Petr Korda tested positive for steroid nandrolene at Wimbledon, only to escape without a suspension due to "exceptional circumstances". His appeal to the Court of Arbitration in Sport in Switzerland failed.

DIANE MODAHL

British runner Diane Modahl, the 1990 Commonwealth 800 metres champion, successfully challenged a positive drugs test at a later Games. She was completely exonerated. The litigation led to the bankrupting of the British Athletics Federation.

BEN JOHNSON

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics the Canadian sprinter was stripped of his 100m gold medal and world record after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol. In 1993, aged 31, he was banned from athletics for life after failing another drug test.

LINFORD CHRISTIE

Former Olympic 100m champion Linford Christie, 39, was cleared by the UK authorities last September after a positive drugs test for nandrolene, but is still under investigation by the International Amateur Athletics Federation.

RICHARD VIRENQUE

France's top cyclist Richard Virenque, 29, of the Festina team, was thrown out of last year's Tour de France following police inquiries into drug use by a number of cycling teams. The investigation continues, but Virenque is still racing.

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