Bromantan is Russians' 'rocket fuel'

Banned performance-enhancing drugs are becoming more sophisticated. Pat Butcher examines their history
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The Independent Online
New Olympics, new drug! The race between the dope takers and the dope testers continues apace. Seoul was stanozolol, Barcelona was clenbuterol, Atlanta, it seems, is bromantan. The progression is impressive.

Stanozolol was, if not the Dark Ages of drug-taking, then a fairly humble anabolic steroid. Clenbuterol was rather more sophisticated, in that it was used as a masking agent for other "harder" drugs. Bromantan has been described by the Olympic authorities in Atlanta as a "designer drug".

Bromantan, which combines the properties of steroid, stimulant and masking agent - effectively the Grand Slam in doping terms - was developed by the Russian national institutes for pharmacology, and has allegedly been used by the Russian army and by cosmonauts. It is also serving as "rocket fuel" for Russian and east European competitors at the Games.

The Russians take full responsibility for the drug, but claim that since it is not on the International Olympic Committee banned lists, then no action should be taken against those competitors who have tested positive for it.

The IOC does not agree. What started as a trickle in the swimming pool threatens to turn into a flood. First, breaststroker Andrei Korneyev was stripped of his bronze medal over it. Then backstroker, Nina Zhuvaniskya, tested positive followed quickly by the Greco-Roman wrestler, Zafar Guleyev, who also forfeited his bronze medal. The Lithuanian cyclist Rita Razmaite was suspended, along with a Russian coach and a Belarussian doctor, and finally (thus far) a fourth Russian, Marina Trandekova, who finished fifth in the women's 100m, was disqualified.

The Russians are appealing over all these and have taken their case to the new Court of Sports Arbitration, which is sitting in special session.

The Russian team chief, Anatoly Kolesov, insists that the IOC's medical commission has been notified of the drug. "We sent them a description of the drug two years ago. We didn't get a reply, so we assumed it was safe. It is intended to protect the body's immune system."

But Dr Patrick Schamasch, the IOC medical director, said: "As far as I know, we received no information on that issue. But every Olympic delegation knows that the list of banned substances only contains examples. The key word is 'related compounds'. Doctors know what that means."

Kolesov implied that this stance would result in more Russians being disqualified.

Since the Russians claimed that they screened all their competitors before coming to Atlanta, that certainly suggests a belief that the drug was safe. But a warning letter from the International Amateur Athletic Federation to the IOC puts a different gloss on the matter.

Dated June 13, the letter provides a potted history of appearances of the drug in urine samples, dating back to the World Cup cross-country skiing in 1994, when there was one case. Further cases, almost always involving ex-Soviet competitors, in sports as diverse as swimming, figure skating and Nordic Games, are given for the intervening period, from laboratories in Montreal, Lausanne, Tokyo, and Huddinge in Sweden.

The gist of the IAAF letter is that bromantan has been specifically developed not only to combine the properties of steroid and stimulant, but also to confound any testing system.

Indeed, Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the IOC medical commission, admitted after the first positive test that he was not sure that his lab would be able to detect bromantan. But a comparison between models from the Montreal lab and the Atlanta samples had enabled them to do so. "We hope to bring in full proof testing procedures very shortly," he said.

What the affair underlines, however, is that this is a race which no one can win. Drug-taking in sports did not begin with Ben Johnson, and it will not end in Atlanta. It has existed since the Ancient Olympic Games, although it was not recognised that the sheep's testicles devoured by the wrestlers and boxers were rich in testosterone.

The distance runners and walkers of a century ago knowingly took strychnine. This century has been awash with performance-enhancing substances in sport, and they are getting increasingly sophisticated. It seems to be so firmly embedded in the psyche of competitors (and some administrators), and the line between medical back-up and dope-taking is so fine, that it has all become an integral part of competition tactics.