Drugs in sport: Politicians object to IOC proposals

Samaranch tries to defend doping loophole but final declaration proves unacceptable to ministers
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THE "CLEAR MESSAGE" which the International Olympic Committee hoped to send out from their World Conference on Doping in Sport became one of confusion and uncertainty yesterday, even though it was confirmed that a $25m (pounds 15.6m) anti-doping agency would be established in time for the 2000 Olympics.

The IOC received an embarrassingly clear message from attending governments that its final declaration on doping was not acceptable, and may even have helped those who sought to cheat. It was not what an organisation struggling to improve an image tarnished by recent scandals over corruption wanted to hear.

Britain's minister for sport, Tony Banks, speaking on behalf of his 14 fellow European Union sports ministers, refused to endorse the document in its current form. Banks's objections, which he said were shared by government representatives from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and others, centred on a loophole left in the sanctions for doping abuse, and the composition of the body which will oversee the new anti- doping agency.

Although the IOC have adopted a minimum two-year ban for first doping offences, they have left in the possibility of competitors escaping the ban in "exceptional circumstances", following resistance from the world governing bodies of football and cycling.

The beleaguered IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, said the additional clause was necessary because of the risk of legal challenge, and added "it was very important to keep the unity of all international federations within the Olympic Movement". Banks described the sanctions as "minimalist and permissive", saying the wording undermined the effectiveness of the intended ban.

"I see no reason why, in the face of what they might see as problems, the IOC then starts defeating the purpose," Banks said. "They really have to say, `this is what we're going for' and consult and then test it.

"If they are going to say, `we're not sure we can ever get this through, therefore we're not going to do it', that is not the way to make legislation. There are those who say this has actually weakened the position on doping." He added that it would be down to governments to establish their own legislation on doping offences.

"This issue is bigger than the IOC, although it might be a surprise for them to see something larger than themselves," Banks said. "IOC members have been a little stunned by the intervention of governments in this, but they could expect no less. You can't invite government ministers to a conference and expect them to just sit there and applaud politely."

The IOC's original proposals over the constitution of the 15-strong council to direct the anti-doping agency have also met with firm resistance from attending ministers, and the assumption that Samaranch would chair the council has been flatly contradicted.

"We weren't happy with having representatives from sponsors and the pharmaceutical industry on the council," Banks said. "And it would be better for the IOC not to be in the chair. This is not a declaration which we accept as being an end. It is a first step."

A working party involving Olympic and government representatives will meet within three months to determine the structure and financing of the agency.

Samaranch insisted that the declaration amounted to a "message of hope" for the Olympic family. In defence of the wording of the sanction he cited a hypothetical comparison between an experienced 30-year-old athlete caught doping, and a 15-year-old who might have been "manipulated by his entourage". The 78-year-old president deflected the question of whether he was willing to accept that he should not chair the council directing the new anti- doping agency. "I'm not saying this now. The person will be a person elected by the council."

Rumours persist that Samaranch has had to compromise the changes made to the process of selecting host cities for the Games that were made here last month in the glare of world publicity.

The revolt of 50 IOC members protesting against the removal of their voting rights is believed to have been headed off by an informal agreement that the 15-strong body charged with selecting the site of the 2006 Winter Olympics will only whittle the six contenders down to two, and the rank and file of the IOC will then vote for their choice.

There a similar sense of uncertainty yesterday over the future of the GH2000 project, to which the IOC has contributed $1m over the last four years.

A research team led by Professor Peter Sonksen, of St Thomas's Hospital, has arrived at what it believes is a reliable test to determine illegal use of human growth hormone.

But Prince Alexandre de Merode, the director of the IOC medical commission, said that a further $5m would be required to verify the findings, and indicated that blood testing - on which the method is based - would only be carried out for research purposes at the 2000 Olympics.

Sonksen, however, said yesterday that the test could be in place in time for Sydney. "This is the second stage of the operation," he said, adding that he remained optimistic after the positive response the IOC medical commission had given to his full report.

The most succinct IOC response of the day came from Senegal's Keba Mbaye, when asked by a reporter whether the phrase "exceptional circumstances" referred to any highly paid professional athlete. "No," Mbaye replied. It remains to be seen if he is right.