Drugs in sport: Verroken striving for zero defect

In spite of what the prophets of doom say, there are strides being made in the war against drugs.

Mike Rowbottom
Wednesday 09 December 1998 00:02 GMT

THE ADVERTISEMENT - of which Michele Verroken, director of the UK Sports Council's Anti-Doping programme - had a copy, was problematic. Waving the article with an expression that tested positive for traces of exasperation, Verroken pondered the best tactics.

The item claimed to purify urine "for four to five hours". Now why would anyone want to do such a thing? Would it, by any chance, be to avoid banned substances being detected in the event of having to give a urine sample to an officer working under Verroken's direction? Analysis was required to see if the product lived up to its claims.

But if it didn't - would it be better not to say? So that anyone attempting to use it for cheating, rather than any purpose of random curiosity, would be exposed? And what if it did live up to its claims? Would that then require another loop of explanation or another long chemical name to be appended to the bulging list of substances and practices currently proscribed by the International Olympic Committee?

Such tortuous mental processes have become second nature to Verroken as she has attempted to second guess any British sporting protagonists who might have a mind for a spot of illicit chemical assistance.

How successful is she? Verroken can never know. That is the nature of the game she is playing - testers in pursuit of cheaters - where even positive results are ambiguous. Do they mean success - can it be assumed that all those not testing positive are innocent? Not for sure.

Last year, under Verroken's auspices, the UK Sports Council doping programme carried out 4,574 tests, 3,752 of them in this country.

The samples, analysed by the Drug Control Centre in Chelsea, were carried out in 48 sports and yielded results that were 98.3 per cent negative.

Of the 79 cases where irregularities were reported, more than half were for stimulants. Anabolic agents, such as steroids, accounted for 16.5 per cent, refusals or non-availability 17.7 per cent, and marijuana 10.1 per cent.

That could be the national picture. But perhaps it will look very different when tests for the new vogue of hormone supplements, HgH and EPO, are found and introduced. In the meantime, Verroken's task is to marshal her forces as best she may.

One certainty however is that figure of around 4,000 tests, which has been the pattern for the last 10 years, is going to increase.

After seven years of pleading to the Government - which supplies all but pounds 190,000 of the unit's pounds 1m annual budget - has allowed them to go ahead and seek sponsorship for additional testing from national sporting governing bodies.

"It has been a turning point," she said. "I feel very pleased about that because I hear what athletes are saying about wanting more testing." There are plans already being laid for blood testing to be introduced in time for the 2000 Olympics.

In the meantime, however, the testers must rely upon urine samples. There are, however, a number of new approaches which Verroken and her colleagues are considering in that area.

The first is of DNA sampling, to find out more about the urine's make- up and to confirm it is that of the intended donor. Another option, not widely available, is to store urine samples and produce a chemical profile of each competitor. Such a method, Verroken says, would reveal otherwise undetectable irregularities within a series of tests, even if each one had proved negative.

It is this kind of profile, indicating unusual variations in testosterone, which saw charges levelled against Mary Decker-Slaney this year.

But Verroken points out that such a system could also act as a safeguard for an athlete who shows up a surprising positive, perhaps abroad. They would be able to call on their profile as a case for the defence.

The third variation on current practice being considered is testing urine samples for age, to ensure that they are not simply stored samples which have been catheterised into a competitor's bladder before a test.

Of the tests carried out this year, a total of 877 were done out of competition. In theory, this means no notice, a knock on the door, a hand on the shoulder and accompaniment until the sample is produced. In practice, such instant opportunities do not always present themselves, although Verroken insists the majority of such testing has been either at no-notice or within one hour.

Unusual behaviour in those requested to comply is noted. There are those who become nervous, or try to delay giving a sample.

In such cases, random testing becomes targeted testing. As in the case of the Irish Olympic gold medallist Michelle Smith, the testers will make it their business to return.

Verroken's take on the booming phenomenon of creatine echoes the BOA line.

"We get a lot of enquiries about creatine," she said. "A lot of people are concerned about it. Of course, it is not prohibited. But we are talking carefully to the people who know best - the sports nutritionists and physiologists.

Apart from doubts over possible long-term side-effects, Verroken points to another worrying factor - "maybe you have found yourself not improving in performance, so your answer is to change your level of creatine. That's the danger, not just of creatine, but of anything that comes along as the so-called new wonder drug."

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