A Clean Break
There are things you know -- and then there are things you know. The difference is everything.
In 1969, while he was in Germany attending his first international track-and-field competition, Frank Shorter roomed with a hammer-thrower, a man of immense proportions. One night the roommate began bouncing off the walls, agitated and nervous. "How am I going to pick him up?" Shorter wondered when he found the mountain passed out in the bathroom. Frank Shorter knew about doping.
But drugs to enhance an athlete's performance were for others, gym giants who needed the bulk and the strength. More to the point, they were for the weak, a prop for the wannabes. For the athletes who chose not to use chemicals, it was as much about pride as it was about health. Doping was for the athletes who weren't good enough.
In 1972 Shorter won the Olympic gold medal in the marathon, a performance that stands today as one of the truly magnificent moments in the history of the games. He wore golden shoes and chewed up ground with a deceptively small stride that made him look as though he were somehow running gentler than everyone else in the field. He took the lead at the fifteen-mile point and widened it in the remaining miles, and when he reached the stadium, he was alone. He was the first American to win the race in nearly seven decades.
In 1976 Shorter was poised to repeat, and for a while, it looked as though he might. As the Olympic marathon course wound through the University of Montreal, Shorter was running stride for stride with a little-known East German named Waldemar Cierpinski. (During the race, Shorter mistook him for Carlos Lopez, a silver-medalist in the 10,000 meters, because of the two men's similar blue-and-white jerseys.) Primarily known as a steeplechaser, Cierpinski had only recently begun competing in marathons. The race against Shorter seemed to mark a turning point for him.
"I remember at the twenty-mile mark, he began to pull away from me," Shorter says. "And I was running hard -- really working. I thought, Uh-oh. I'm in trouble.'"
Shorter dug deep, and he was able to pull to within about fifty meters of Cierpinski. "But at that point," he recalls, "he simply turned around and looked at me, then ran away."
Another member of the United States team, Don Kardong, finished out of the medals by only three seconds. He came in fourth, behind Karel Lismont of Belgium. When Kardong saw Shorter at the finish, he asked if he'd won. A dejected Shorter shook his head and held up two fingers: second place.
During the next four years, Shorter had his suspicions. Cierpinski never seemed capable of duplicating his running at the '76 Olympics. His times bulged: He'd won the gold with a 2:09:55 race, but in the years following his times ran closer to 2:13. He came in third, fourth, fifth in the big races.
Then, at the 1980 Olympics, in Moscow, with the American team boycotting the games, Cierpinski had another conspicuous spike, running away with the gold medal again.
And Shorter wondered some more.
For many people, the issue of drugs in sports simply comes down to one of tautology, the sort of terse explanation you'd expect if you were to ask Pat Robertson why he disapproves of cocaine. Drugs shouldn't be in sports because it's illegal, and it's illegal because drugs shouldn't be in sports. Yet for thinking people, the definition of doping -- the use of performance-enhancing drugs -- has always been squirrelly, and the inability to make a hard-edged case against them is a big part of the problem.
If, for example, you favor a prohibition against chemicals that increase the body's ability to perform athletically or to recover more quickly, then couldn't Gatorade (or PowerBars, or whatever latest EAS supplement Romo is stuffing into his system) qualify -- at least if you believe the ads? And if we all agree that certain drugs are bad, then why is, say, andro -- Mark McGwire's biceps-builder of choice -- legal in Major League Baseball but illegal in track-and-field competitions?
The most common argument against chemically improved performance is tied to an athlete's effort and character. "Doping is illegal because the athlete is not using his own body, physically, to improve himself," argues James Puffer, chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at UCLA's medical school and a former Olympics team doctor. Yet anabolic steroids don't work by magic; you need to endure intense workouts to obtain their benefits. Conversely, consider the (legal) use of pressurized oxygen chambers, which help build red blood cells by mimicking altitude: Where's the physical effort in lounging around in thin air while your blood upgrades to high octane?
Another gray area is what "performance-enhancing" means, exactly. Some illegal drugs don't directly affect performance at all. Human growth hormone, hGH, is not much help during a race. But it does seem to help the body recover more quickly after it is broken down by stress. As a result, an athlete on hGH can keep his rest days to a minimum and train harder, thus increasing his ultimate fitness for race day. That certainly is an advantage. But then, eating a thick steak helps you recover faster than eating potato chips.
And there's the argument that performance-enhancing drugs are dangerous, chemical time bombs that can rip you apart at any time. That's certainly true in some instances. Anabolic steroids can wreak havoc on any number of the body's systems; and when used to excess, erythropoietin, an anemia drug that increases red blood cells (and is popular among competitive cyclists), can turn your plasma into molasses.
But many illegal drugs are not particularly unhealthy. Caffeine, for instance, is banned in the Olympics but enjoyed safely nearly everywhere else. Even steroids have legitimate medical uses. So what critics are really talking about when they say such drugs are dangerous is overuse.But that's an argument that can easily run out of air. After all, too much of anything -- even drug-free training -- can be dangerous.
Compounding the confusion over performance-enhancing drugs is that while the advantages derived from chemicals are mostly illegal, the advantages derived from mechanics are allowed and their innovation encouraged. What, for instance, is the difference between EPO and, say, clipless pedals on a bicycle, or a sleek hooded speed-skating suit that cuts wind drag? All three provide an enhancement of the body's ability to work. If the International Olympic Committee were genuinely serious about leveling the playing field, shouldn't it mandate that every athlete use the exact same equipment, train the same way and have an identical budget?
Finally, what are we to make of drugs that are banned in some instances but not others? The Olympics prohibit stimulants such as those found in over-the-counter medicines like inhalers for asthma. Yet athletes are permitted to use the medication for legitimate therapeutic reasons. Fair enough. But was it just coincidence, then, that some 60 percent of the U.S. team at the 1994 Olympics claimed to be victims of exercised-induced asthma and thus legally eligible to sniff the stimulant?
The fact is, with elite athletes in particular, training has become so sophisticated that separating the person from the performance has become impossible at times. Top athletes these days know where to train (altitude helps) and, thanks to new technology, the precise number of times the heart should beat per minute to maximize training efficiency. Fifty years ago, top competitive bicyclists smoked cigarettes and ate fat like it was rice. Today a cyclist in training can tell you the exact number of calories he gets from fat, protein and carbohydrates -- and how his body will react if he deviates from the regime. The result is that modern athletes wring far more from themselves than they once did -- the same effect, if you think about it, that doping has.
Of course, all of those arguments amount to a bucket of warm spit when you lose to someone who may have been propelled by some illegal chemical. For all the reasons that exist not to ban drugs, the arguments in favor of the restrictions tend to crystallize when it becomes a matter of gold versus silver.
"In 1970, at a race in Leningrad, I remember looking at this Soviet marathoner and thinking, Boy that guy's chest is big,'" Shorter recalls. "But then I was able to think, He's just human.'"
Yet by 1972 there was plenty of circumstantial evidence that the East German Olympians were something more than that. In the 1968 summer games, athletes from that tiny country of seventeen million went home with an even dozen swimming and track-and-field medals. Four years later they walked away with 48, a fourfold increase; in 1976 the number was 61. Shorter, along with everyone else, had reason to be suspicious.
Today, at 52 years of age, Frank Shorter is still impossibly thin (he had 3 percent body fat when he ran in the Olympics), with a puff of neat gray hair and an improbably massive chest. He runs in the master's division now, and, while he has cut back his distance running to fifteen miles at a time, he still runs almost every day on Boulder's open-space trails, which start just outside his back door. Recently, he's also learned some German.
In 1990, investigators in the former East Germany examining old Stasi files began uncovering information that caught Shorter's attention. The documents suggested that German physicians and coaches had secretly and illegally orchestrated a massive doping program designed to produce superior athletes. On May 15, 1997, Shorter sent a fax to Dr. Werner W. Franke, a former middle-distance runner who has been one of the most aggressive readers of the old doping files. Twenty-five years after watching Cierpinski's back disappear into the muggy Montreal mist, Shorter needed to know.
Franke wrote back in January 1998. He included a sheaf of papers with columns of athletes' names -- East German Olympians who'd been given drugs in an effort to puff up the country's medal count. Shorter found what he was looking for when he reached Number 62. "This indicates that several middle and long distance runners already in the '70s were part of the doping program of the GDR and that Cierpinski was already on androgenic steroids in 1976," Franke wrote.
The information gave Shorter a feeling of vindication. "I had been quiet this whole time," he says. "But I knew. And now I knew for sure." Yet the confirmation of Cierpinski's doping also nudged Shorter toward introspection.
"Personally, I began to re-evaluate why I should be so concerned about Cierpinski," he recalls. "I mean, this was much more of an atrocity to the people who finished out of the medals. Then I began to think, You know, it's self-serving to use my recognition and influence only to say, I want the color of my medal to change.'"
So in the fall of 1998 Shorter wrote to retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's appointee as White House National Drug Policy director. McCaffrey had been pushing for a new agency to oversee drug testing for the Olympic Games and other high-profile athletic competitions. It turned out that McCaffrey's chief spokesman was Bob Weiner, a master's runner who has on his wall a photo of himself beating Shorter. The general, Weiner told Shorter in a phone call, would love his help.
For Shorter, an elite athlete who says he has never even been tempted to use drugs, the test of what substances should be banned has always involved the metabolic control panel inside the human body, the mechanism that tells an athlete when he must stop or slow down or rest. When that self-control is turned down or off by a drug, he says, it's time to ban it.
"If you're training to your maximum and you're taking yourself to your limit, then what does it mean to take the governor off the engine?" Shorter asks. "If you're willing to sacrifice yourself to compete, that's your choice. But then you put pressure on others."
That pressure is Shorter's primary argument against doping. Drug use in any sport tends to follow a predictable pattern. It begins with the athletes who need just a slight advantage -- a stronger kick at the race's finish, a few more pounds on the clean-and-jerk, an extra breath pedaling up a hill -- to start finishing in the money. But sooner or later the top finishers begin looking over their shoulders, noticing that guys who once finished firmly in the center of the pack are now just behind them. It doesn't take much to figure out why, so little by little, the top athletes start using drugs, too.
Once that happens, Shorter says, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs boils down to one of free will. It is an individual athlete's right to do what he pleases with his body -- inject steroids, sleep in an oxygen tent, drip EPO into his veins until his blood freezes in place, or simply push himself cleanly until he drops, exhausted. But when he is forced to do something that he would not ordinarily do because the man next to him is doing it and now he must, too, just to keep up -- that's when the athlete has lost control over his own body.
This spring, Shorter was named chairman of the new United States Anti-Doping Agency. Beginning October 2, the day after the summer Olympic Games in Sydney end, the agency will assume responsibility for all sports drug testing within the country. (At the same time, a related organization, the World Anti-Doping Agency, will become responsible for all doping matters involving the Olympics, a function previously -- and disastrously -- handled by the International Olympic Committee.)
The USADA also plans to spend $2 million a year on research -- an attempt to keep up with the newest doping and masking methods being used by coaches, trainers and athletes. "The drug issue was always viewed by the IOC as a public-relations problem, not as a drug problem," Shorter says. "Now that it's being viewed as a drug problem, it needs to be attacked as one."
On a personal note, Shorter has also pushed for samples of each athlete's urine and blood to be frozen in perpetuity. That way, when new testing methods are developed, former winners -- even dead ones -- could be retested to verify that they won cleanly. He says the move would deter potential cheaters by making them constantly confront their past. Waldemar Cierpinski, who reportedly runs an athletic-apparel store in Germany, has avoided commenting on the recovered Stasi files. But that would be hard to do if his blood were frozen in a vial in Switzerland someplace waiting to be thawed for a steroid test.
Despite the reforms, however, there is a serious concern that the new anti-doping agencies -- however well-intentioned -- are far too little and much too late. "There is a gross epidemic of drugs in elite sports," says Charles Yesalis, a professor of epidemiology at Pennsylvania State University, an expert on Olympic doping and the author of a forthcoming book, Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise (Human Kinetics Press).
He says that not only will it be difficult to eradicate all drug use among current athletes -- Yesalis calls the USADA's $2 million annual research budget "chump change" -- but reformers will be swimming against a stiff tide to prevent future use, as well. That's because the people who pay for the events have become addicted to extraordinary athletic performances -- performances that, in turn, have become dependent on drugs.
"Would NBC have spent billions of dollars on broadcasting the Olympics from Atlanta if it knew the announcer would end up saying, Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Johnson has just posted the 154th best time ever in the 200 meters!'?" Yesalis asks. "Of course not. Drugs have created bigger-than-life athletes doing bigger-than-life things."
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