Tennis: Korda's innocence disputed

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EXPERT OPINION was divided yesterday as to whether Petr Korda, who tested positive for steroids during this year's Wimbledon, could have taken the drug innocently.

The 30-year-old Czech, who is the reigning Australian Open champion, was stripped of the rankings points and prize money he earned by reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals, but avoided suspension because he denied taking the drug, nandrolone, knowingly.

"I wish to state categorically that I am not a drugs cheat and would never seek to obtain a competitive advantage over my fellow professionals by such means," he said. "I am delighted that the committee has vindicated me."

Dr Joe Doust, a physiologist at the Department of Sports Science in Brighton, said: "It's certainly possible he could have taken the drug without knowing. There are two ways of administering it, by injection or tablet. It's perfectly reasonable he would not know what he's taking. It's surprising how many sportsmen these days just do what they're told."

He added: "I think what happened in the Tour de France this summer shows that whatever the spiel by sports medical teams, they are the people behind doping when it happens, not the athletes."

Doust added that Korda was probably given the steroid not over a long period to build muscle bulk, but to hasten recovery from injury and allow him to train harder.

In Australia, where Korda is due to defend his Australian Open title next month, experts were less ready to accept Korda's story.

Vicki Kapernick, a spokes-person for the Australian Sports Drug Agency, said nandrolone was an artificial version of the hormone testosterone which can only be injected. "It has a performance-enhancing effect and helps in muscle-building and recovery from injury while training," she said.

A sports medicine practitioner, Dr Peter Larkins, said he found it hard to believe that Korda had not known what substance he had taken.

"How often have we heard the story: `I didn't know where it came from'?" Larkins said. "Elite athletes have a lot of people wanting to help them and there is a lot of shaky advice around. Maybe he could have been that naive. It just doesn't gel with me, that he didn't know what it was, especially at that level. That wouldn't get you a defence in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee."

The Australian Open tournament director, Paul McNamee, said Korda had been given the absolute minimum penalty.

"He might have been given a cocktail of some sort in an injection and not been told exactly what was in it," McNamee said. "But it is generally not an excuse if you didn't know; it's part of the fabric of any sport and players have got to be vigilant."

The Korda affair comes as the International Tennis Federation prepares to cast its vote for a unified anti-doping programme for sport.

The ITF will be represented at an anti-doping conference organised by the IOC on 2 February next year, while Brian Tobin, the ITF president, attended an IOC working session on the subject in Lausanne on 27 November. "The main difference in the proposed policy," Tobin said, "is that the minimum penalty for hard substances - higher-class substances - would be a minimum of two years' suspension. Minor substances, social drugs and so on, would still be three months.

"A clause was added on the day that said any sport not adhering to this unified policy would not be able to participate in the Olympics. I had to discuss that with our partners [the men's and women's professional tours]. Having spoken to them, I don't see any problem at all, and I'm sure we'll be supporting the unified programme.

"Tennis has the most complete anti-doping policy of any sport, because it covers all of the professional areas, the Women's Tennis Association, the Association of Tennis Professionals' Tour, the ITF, and even our junior areas. We're dead against cheats in tennis."