Drug cheats up to some new tricks

BOOK OF THE WEEK; Drugs in Sport (Second edition) Edited by David R Motram (E and FN Spoon, pounds 17.50)
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The Independent Online
As Sally Gunnell comments in her foreword, "so much has been written about the subject of drugs in sport that it is sometimes difficult to know what is truth and what is rumour."

Analysing the current disposition of forces in the endless game between cheats and testers, this collection of reports provides anyone seriously interested in understanding the title with a stabilising work of reference. It also addresses the crucial question: where do we go from here?

News from the front in the war against doping details the areas where smart - and rich - cheats have moved now that detection of anabolic steroids has been widely established. The trend is towards substances which occur naturally in the body. Testosterone, human growth hormone (hGH), luteotrophic hormone (LT) and human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) are all being administered in the belief that they are undetectable and with the intention of increasing strength and endurance.

Abnormal levels of testosterone are indicated by measuring it in relation to epitestosterone - the ratio should normally be 1:1, and if it exceeds 6:1 a doping abuse is assumed. Abuse of hCG has become popular because it stimulates the secretion of both testosterone and epitestosterone within the 6:1 limit; no reliable test has yet been agreed upon by the International Olympic Committee. Nor is there yet a standard method of detecting hGH.

Competitors in endurance events have long been able to use blood doping, extracting and storing their own blood and replacing it before an event to supplement their oxygen-carrying capacity. Several Finnish middle distance runners have admitted using this technique, which was also said to have been employed by the US cycling team at the 1984 Olympics.

Means of combating the latest forms of doping abuse include the drug ketoconazole. When administered to a normal male, the testosterone-epitestosterone ratio falls; but when administered to someone who has been injecting testosterone, the level remains the same or rises. The collection of "hormone profiles" from leading athletes is another measure that is being considered. The book addresses the question of why drugs are used in sport, and offers a historical perspective on the issue.

Michele Verroken, head of doping control for the Sports Council, charts efforts to improve athletic performance from the time of the ancient Olympic games, when athletes were reported to have consumed special substances. The winner of the sprint in 668BC was said to have done so on a diet of dried figs. She quotes Charlie Francis, former coach to the banned sprinter Ben Johnson: "There are thousands of possible synthetic permutations of the testosterone molecule...private laboratories stand ready to synthesise any number of these steroids and keep the athletes ahead of the game."

The war goes on, but books such as this help establish the ground rules.

Mike Rowbottom