Swimming: Swimming considers revolutionary drug plan

EXCLUSIVE
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The Independent Online
JAMES PARRACK

Revolutionary proposals in swimming's fight against drugs will be discussed at a conference of the sport's leading coaches in Birmingham today.

The ground-breaking scheme would do away completely with the current list of banned drugs but would give an independent medical panel the power to ban any swimmers whose blood samples showed evidence of what it considered performance-enhancing substances. The introduction of blood tests would help to expose some drug use which is currently undetectable in urine.

The plan comes at a time of growing concern in swimming about drug use in the sport, and the inability of current testing procedures to catch the cheats. Particular concern has been expressed about China's rapid rise though the world ranks. At the 1988 Olympics China won no gold medals. By the 1994 World Championships their women had won 12 out of 16 events.

According to Dr Mike Turner of the British Olympic Association, only blood tests can hope to catch the drug users. Neither blood doping nor growth hormones (both of which would have major benefits in swimming) are detectable in urine.

The new proposals have come from John Leonard, a leading American coach and the executive director of the world Swimming Coaches' Association. Leonard said: "Swimmers would be tested for blood and urine. You look for any substances that don't belong there. A specialist panel of medical and legal experts, appointed by the world governing body, would decide whether this is a performance enhancer. If the answer is yes, then you will be banned".

Leonard is convinced that the present system of random, out of competition, urine-only testing is open to too much abuse and is not working. "It's a gigantic problem, and probably the major threat to elite swimming.

"The real problem is the dirty chemists. They change the molecules around so that the new steroid is not on the list of banned substances, but it is still a performance enhancer. So then it gets added to the banned list and the chemists just change it again. The list gets longer and the cheats get away with it. We need a whole new protocol."

A precedent has been set in skiing, which has been using blood tests for eight years. The world governing body informed its member federations that in order to compete they had to agree to blood testing. With enough pressure from within the sport, swimming could do the same.

The British swimmer Nick Gillingham, who feels he was denied a bronze medal in the Atlanta Olympics because of opponents who used drugs, welcomed the proposals. "Everyone gives blood for lactate testing to monitor training so there should be no objections for giving blood for drug testing," he said.

"If someone refuses, you have to ask what the real reason behind it is. At the moment one could beat the system with the right money, the right lawyer and the right pharmacist."

The American swimmer Janet Evans - another who feels that "clean" swimmers are not being given a fair chance - was also in favour of the new scheme. Evans said: "This is a great idea. People look at the banned list and think, 'Wow these are drugs I should be taking', and get ideas from it. It's ruining the legitimacy of the sport. What's being done now isn't working. But you try to do something about it and nothing happens and everyone gets so frustrated. We definitely need blood testing."

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