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America sets pace in race to catch the drugs cheats

21 August 2006

By David Powell

The success of policing drugs in athletics in the United States needs to be replicated in other countries, especially in Eastern Europe, according to Professor Arne Ljungqvist, a lifelong leading anti-doping campaigner. Ljungqvist was speaking here yesterday after it was reported that Marion Jones had returned a positive sample in a test conducted by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Ljungqvist voiced concern that, while the US has made great strides towards catching cheats, not until the required 30 countries sign up to a Unesco convention on anti-doping would the global fight against the use of performance-enhancing drugs be balanced. It was, Ljungqvist said, “a great weakness in the present system”.

At the same time, Pierre Weiss, the secretary of the IAAF, said that a move by the world governing body to double the punishment for first offences from two years to four was doomed to failure. If there is to be no increased deterrent through harsher penalties, it will need to be achieved by increasing the likelihood of being caught.

It is alleged that Jones, winner of three gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, was found to have erythropoietin (EPO) in a urine sample taken at the United States Championships, in Indianapolis, in June.

Until recently, EPO was thought to be useful only to endurance athletes, but Jones’s case follows those of Kelli White and Michelle Collins, fellow US sprinters who fell foul of the same drug.

The Washington Post, breaking the story, quoted “sources with knowledge of the test results”, and Steve Riddick, the athlete’s coach, admitted subsequently that Jones had told him that “some traces” had been found. However, the B sample was still to be tested.

Should the second sample confirm the first, Jones, 30, whose form this year has been her best since she was linked to the Balco scandal, would face a two-year ban. It should be remembered, however, that the B sample does not always back up the A, as the case of Bernard Lagat, the two-times Olympic 1,500 metres medal-winner, shows.

Lagat returned a positive A sample before the 2003 World Championships in Paris, and the result of the test was leaked. Lagat missed the championships, after which the B sample was analysed as negative. The former Kenya runner, who now competes for the US and won the 3,000 metres at the Norwich Union International in Birmingham yesterday, is suing the IAAF for $500,000 (about £265,000), claiming that the testing procedure for EPO was unsafe.

Since the USADA became responsible for testing in the US, and began working with federal investigators to expose the supply of drugs from the Balco laboratory, several leading athletes have been caught. They include White and Collins, who were stripped of world titles, Tim Montgomery, whose 100 metres world record was annulled, and Justin Gatlin.

In 2004, Collins was banned on the strength of the USADA proving that she took EPO, among other drugs, despite not failing a drugs test and pleading innocence. Neither did White fail a test, but she admitted taking EPO and other drugs. Gatlin, the Olympic and world 100 metres champion, tested positive for testosterone in Kansas in April.

As with Jones’s adverse finding, Gatlin’s was returned through a USADA test. Almost unnoticed, however, on July 12, 17 days before Gatlin announced his bombshell, Natalia Sadova, the Olympic discus champion, was revealed to have tested positive in Hengelo, the Netherlands.

In Russia and China, IAAF testers can lose time in the process of unannounced out-of-competition testing while waiting for visas. Ljungqvist, referring to pockets of Eastern Europe, said: “What we are apparently missing in many countries is an efficient domestic mechanism to clean up their houses.”

Ljungqvist, a senior official on the IAAF, IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), added: “We have to make governments aware that sports organisations probably are not capable of doing it (anti-doping themselves. The Unesco convention is the adoption of the Wada code by the United Nations membership. It was supposed to be ratified quickly by the membership.

“To become operational, it requires 30 countries to sign the convention, but it did not happen.” Signing commits a country to adopting the Wada code and only 15 have signed. They include Great Britain, but not China or Russia.

Explaining the benefits of EPO for sprinters, Ljungqvist said that it allows athletes to train harder and longer. The IAAF is to press ahead with its move for the Wada to adopt four-year bans while expecting defeat. “But we will fail,” Weiss said, on the basis that the IAAF was in the minority of federations wanting the increase.

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