Drugs tests fail test

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The Independent Online
There is nothing sensational about drugs in Atlanta. Go five minutes outside the ring that protects the concentration of Olympic venues (only 47 murders there last year) and drugs problems stagger towards you along the menacing sidewalk. They seem to make a stark contrast from the clean- living athletes who are camped in the Olympic village. Or maybe the only difference is that the drug-takers in the Olympic village get paid a lot more money.

The inevitability of drugs again becoming an important issue here may have been sparked in Britain by last week's Panorama programme, but even before that an Australian sprinter, Dean Capobianco, was being investigated for alleged use of stimulants. He will not be the last, but suggestions that the "latest" drug testing equipment here will result in dozens of positive results seems misplaced.

The much-publicised "high resolution mass spectrometer", which the International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, said was the "best deterrent in the world", is being used for the first time. However Samaranch admitted: "The main problem now is not the testing of athletes in competition but in training." That is only one of the flaws, and why a lot of cheats will prosper here.

While the number of out-of-competition tests has greatly increased, the chances are that few of the drugs abusers in these Olympics will still have been taking stimulants and muscle- enhancing drugs on the very eve of competition. The British Olympic Association has been using a mass spectrometer at St Thomas' hospital in London in the months leading up to the Games. They have taken some 200 tests on more than 300 British competitors and are confident that few, if any, of the British team are cheats. Experts suggest that that is wishful thinking, and that the new equipment has a blind eye.

The IOC General Secretary, Istvan Gyulai, says that the equipment is three times more sensitive than that used for the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 and that it can detect anabolic steroids in the body up to three months after they were taken. However, John Cantwell, the chief medical officer here, explains that the equipment is incapable of detecting other growth hormone drugs which are used to help athletes control pain and repair injuries quickly. So, only competitors daft enough to have been until very recently taking the old-favourite versions of anabolic steroids, which dramatically increase muscle growth, are likely to be found out here, while some new derivations of steroids are virtually impossible to detect.

Athletes with the necessary funds can pick up information about the latest developments in drugs through the Internet. Even those who are as yet low in the rankings can pay as little as pounds 20 for steroids available through mail order, which is why the organisers of the Games were never greatly in favour of the mass spectrometer: they believed it would make Atlanta '96 memorable for being the Drugs Games - and that in a city which thought it could turf out all of its known local addicts and hide them away for the duration of the Olympics. Perhaps they need not have worried. Among those who believe that the latest equipment is a waste of money is Dr Jean-Pierre de Mondenard, who has written extensively on stimulants and says a blood-doping drug (EPO) as well as human growth hormones will slip the net.

With top athletes now reaping huge rewards for their efforts, there is obviously a big and lucrative market for the pharmaceutical companies to exploit. They will continue to do so no matter what technology is put in their way.