Doctor's orders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am

As China prepares to host this summer's Olympic Games, the chief medical officer to the Hong Kong Olympic team says the world can expect rampant doping among Olympic athletes that will go largely undetected.

Dr Julian Chang, who also serves as chairman of the East Asian Games Medical Commission, paints a picture of a professional and Olympic sports culture where drug cheats are leagues ahead of drug detectors and where winners use drugs and losers do not.

Sports that depend upon physical power or explosive bursts of speed - such as weightlifting, bodybuilding and track and field - are particularly susceptible to doping cheats, he says, but no sport is untainted.

'As long as there is money in it,' Chang says, 'no sports are immune. For athletes, it is true to say that if you don't do it, you're going to have a hard time competing. If you are a top-10 athlete [in the Olympics], performance-enhancing drugs will make you a top-three medallist. If you are top three, they can get you a gold medal.'

Other prominent figures in the Hong Kong sports community accused the doctor of speculation and over-generalisation, but they did not dispute his main point - that doping had become a way of life for many top athletes in professional and Olympic sports.

The punishing physical regime required of these athletes makes drugs such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) an irresistible temptation, Chang says. These drugs not only increase power, speed and stamina, he says, but also allow for a far more rigorous training schedule than a drug-free athlete could endure, and for quicker recovery from injury.

Chang describes drug use among athletes as 'a situation arising from a need'.

'You cannot ask human bodies to perform year-round without a break. They need these things to keep them going and to come back quicker from an injury,' he says.

To avoid detection, he adds, athletes well-schooled in the drug culture know how to time their drug use while training so they appear clean during testing, and they also employ 'masking agents' to avoid detection. These agents consist of a wide array of other drugs and compounds that hide the presence of illegal substances.

For this reason, drugs such as diuretics have also been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but Chang says drug cheats remain far ahead of the chase by authorities to catch them.

'It is very easy to hide drug use,' he said. 'Only the stupid and the ignorant get caught because they are using backward technology.'

In a letter to the editor of the South China Morning Post (January 21), Chang dismissed as 'too little and probably too late' the announcement this month in the United States that several of the country's biggest sports organisations would commit at least US$10 million to the formation of an anti-doping research programme intended to detect and deter drug use. Instead, he proposed starkly contrasting solutions: either legalise or criminalise doping in sports.

Asked about this proposal, Chang says: 'We can see that education doesn't work because education cannot overcome human greed. The only solution is to legalise it or to criminalise it - this in-between game doesn't work.'

Legitimising drug use would bring greater transparency to the sports world, he says, making doping safer for athletes who must hide in the shadows of their respective games, sometimes relying on inferior veterinary drugs. On the other hand, he adds, the only way to deter athletes is for governments to threaten those who fail drug tests with prison terms and sporting bodies to respond with lifetime bans.

Chang is also dismissive of the recently released report on doping in American baseball, which names Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Andy Pettitte and nearly 90 others as users of anabolic steroids and/or HGH. 'Ho-hum,' he responds. 'Tell us something we don't already know.'

The 409-page report, compiled by former senator George Mitchell, is the result of a 20-month investigation and has caused a tremendous stir in the US, but Chang dismisses it as 'just another show, just another farce'.

Despite the report, use of performance-enhancing drugs will continue in baseball and in other big-money sports, he says, because tests are generally organised to avoid catching cheats and sanctions are weak when athletes are caught. For every Floyd Landis - the American cyclist stripped of his title as winner of the 2006 Tour de France after testing positive for an unnatural source of testosterone - he says there are legions of athletes who avoid detection.

As for the six-month prison term handed down this month to former Olympic track gold medallist Marion Jones, the doctor notes the penalty, imposed by a US federal judge, was not for drug use but for perjury and for cheque fraud. Perjury is also the charge against baseball's home-run king, Barry Bonds, who for years has been dogged by allegations of drug use and now faces a possible jail term for lying about it, not for doing it.

As allegations of drug use also hang over cricket, soccer, American football and other sports, Chang calls on authorities to acknowledge doping as a fact of sporting life and to admit the failure of the strategies undertaken to combat it.

The head coach of Hong Kong's Olympic rowing team, Chris Perry, disagreed with Chang's characterisation of the battle against performance-enhancing drugs as a lost cause, but would nevertheless like to see doping criminalised. He praised the World Anti-Doping Code, which was adopted in 2004, prior to the Olympic Games in Athens, and for the first time standardised anti-doping rules across sports and countries. The code, however, does not have the status of international law.

'It's a tight battle between the cheats and those who catch the cheats,' he says. 'It's science against science. It's wrong to portray this as a losing battle. Politically, we can see a turn in the tide in the Marion Jones case.'

Perry describes himself as a 'romantic' who would like to see the Olympics and professional sports wiped clean of performance-enhancing drugs.

'I still believe in sport as something we can promote to young people,' he says. 'Young athletes are now in danger of copying their [drug-using] heroes, with huge side effects for their bodies.'

According to Yvonne Yuan Wai-yi, biochemist for the Hong Kong Sports Institute, doping is 'not yet a problem' among Hong Kong athletes. To prevent it from becoming one, however, she also thinks governments should consider criminalising drug use in sports.

'It can help,' she says. 'Legalising it is not the answer because then athletes are competing in the laboratory and not on the track.'

In response to Chang's claims of rampant doping in the Olympics, she says: 'I cannot say that he is wrong, but what he says is speculative.'

A former Hong Kong Olympic athlete also questioned the sweeping nature of the doctor's allegations, saying many Olympic athletes do not use banned substances and insisting that 'Hong Kong athletes are clean'. But the former athlete, who asked not to be named, also described sports such as track and field, cycling, weightlifting and bodybuilding as rife with illegal drug use.

'I don't have any hard facts,' the athlete says. 'But I know what I've heard, and I know what I've seen. I have seen it ... it is rampant.'

Purists such as Perry would like to see the clock turned back to a better age when the playing field was level and 'fair play' was the cornerstone of athletic competition. Such a time never existed and never will, however, according to Chang.

'Cheating goes back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome,' he says. 'The gladiators took tonic brews. There is no such thing as fair play - there will always be a better racquet, a better nutritionist, something.'