Independent tests are key to drug-free athletes
By MATTHEW FISHER -- Sun Media
SYDNEY -- Canadians should be proud of their Olympians. They are not drug cheats.
That's the firm belief of Andrew Pipe, an Ottawa physician who winces at being described sometimes as Canada's sports drug czar.
"One of the most tragic dimensions of the drug problem is the perception that many of our athletes take drugs," Dr. Pipe, who is part of the Canadian medical staff at the Sydney Games, said during an interview in the athletes village.
"I can categorically state that the overwhelming majority of Canadian athletes compete to the highest standards of fair play as far as the drug issue is concerned," Dr. Pipe said. "The reason that I can state this with confidence is that Canada has had an independent test program in place for 10 years."
Pipe spoke a few days after two athletes were dropped from the Canadian team bound for Sydney after being caught with traces of banned drugs in their bodies.
The Ben Johnson affair, and now these episodes, as well as the mysterious withdrawal of several dozen Chinese athletes on the eve of this Olympiad, has left many people wondering about drug use in sport again.
"I'm not Pollyannaish about this," Pipe said. "It exists in some sports and some sub-cultures within some sports. Sprinting, the throwing events, weightlifting and cycling have seen more than their fair share. With each incident the perception grows that it is every athlete, but it isn't."
The Chinese withdrawals have created a buzz because it is not clear which athletes failed internal Chinese tests and what drugs may have been involved.
The world has been told only that there were "health concerns" and that has left a lot of room for interpretation.
"My understanding of the Chinese sport system is that power rests with local and provincial associations which until recently have had no (drug) controls whatsoever," Pipe, who chairs the Canadian Centre of Ethics in Sport, said. "These recent revelations suggest that that is changing."
Some suspect the Chinese have kept a tenth of their team at home because it recently was announced that Sydney would be the first Olympics to test for erythropoietin, a hormone which stimulates the production of red blood cells which enhance the body's ability to carry oxygen.
But erythropoietin clears the body relatively quickly, while the benefits can linger for up to a few months, so some athletes who have used it may register as being "clean" in Sydney.
"I don't think there is a flavour of the month out there," Pipe said. "The most commonly identified agent is still anabolic steroids.
"Some people continue to believe its can be masked or its usage timed."
There is still no way to test for human growth hormone and for insulin growth factor 1, although Dr. Pipe said it was becoming known that the latter was not nearly as anabolic as had been previously thought.
"The likelihood that these are being used in Sydney is low, but some athletes from developed nations have access to scientific Svengalis who may be active in those areas," Pipe said. "One of the sad ironies of this phenomenon is that we can identify the athletes through tests but we have no system to investigate those who provide (the drugs)."