Sunday, July 18, 2004

USADA on lookout for steroids

Process far from foolproof

By Chris Kahn
The Associated Press

The group responsible for keeping America's Olympic team drug free could be easily confused with a police force this summer.

The Colorado-based U.S. Anti)Doping Agency has demanded access to grand jury testimony and charged four sprinters with using steroids. It kept track and field's biggest star - Marion Jones - under a cloud of suspicion as she failed to qualify in the 100 meters, her signature event.

If the USADA seems aggressive, it's only because the cheaters themselves have become so brazen, officials say.

Since the agency was created after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 85 athletes were nabbed with a witches' brew of chemicals. There were hormones used to put bulk on dogs and livestock, water pills meant for race horses and people with high blood pressure, and asthma drugs that made cows leaner and beefier.

To keep illegal doping under control, the USADA sends out about 100 officers during the year to training facilities, events and even the athletes' homes to test for drugs. But some drugs were synthesized specifically to be undetected, and this is what worries officials the most.

"There have been rumors that there might be designer steroids for several years, and no one knew whether that was true or not," said Larry Bowers, a medical technology specialist for the USADA. "Now we know for sure that there are people trying to defeat the system."

In 2002, cyclist Tammy Thomas received a lifetime suspension for taking a steroid called norbolethone. Norbolethone was never marketed by any pharmaceutical company, and authorities believe someone may be manufacturing it secretly.

Shot putter Kevin Toth and hammer throwers Melissa Price and John McEwen were found with a previously unknown steroid called tetrahydrogestinone, or THG. Drug monitors had no idea THG existed until a coach handed authorities a syringe containing the drug last year.

It's possible, those who help conduct the tests admit, that despite the USADA's efforts an athlete will compete in Athens juiced on another drug they've never heard of.

THG "is the only one we know about," said Dr. Alan Rogol, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Virginia. "There may be another 23 out there."

International anti-doping authorities publish a list of prohibited doping methods that is updated every year with an archive of substances athletes have been caught with, as well as futuristic strategies like "gene doping" - using genes or genetically modified cells to enhance athletic performance - that officials expect to encounter someday.

Some of the most common and effective of the illegal substances are anabolic-androgenic steroids. These are synthetic drugs related to testosterone that stimulate muscle growth and function. Athletes taking them might be able to train harder and longer, though they also might suffer side effects including baldness, shrunken testicles and acne. Women might have their menstrual cycles disrupted or become infertile.

The list also includes growth hormone, which in theory increases the proportion of lean muscle to fat in the body. Children who produce too much growth hormone can become giants, experiencing a condition called acromegaly that affected pro wrestler Andre the Giant and former NBA center Gheorghe Muresan.

In adults, growth hormone hasn't been shown to definitively make someone stronger or faster. Officials say a test for growth hormone doping will be complete soon, but currently there isn't a way to check how many athletes use it.

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