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Olympics·In Depth

Dick Pound, Victor Conte call for radical changes to fight doping

Not long ago, they were on opposite sides of the cat-and-mouse game between drug cheats and testers, but Victor Conte and Dick Pound now agree it's time to throw out the old rules and get serious about anti-doping efforts.

Former adversaries find common ground in criticizing toothless testing system

Canadian Dick Pound led a WADA-commissioned investigation into Russia's track and field athletes that uncovered a vast network of allegedly state-sponsored doping. (Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images)

A longtime champion of the Olympic movement and of drug-free competition, Dick Pound acknowledges his beloved Games are at a crossroads. The dark cloud of performance-enhancing drugs, always looming over the Olympics, seems ready to burst at any moment.

There's the daily drumbeat of positive tests by athletes past and present as the International Olympic Committee's retesting of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Games has led to medallists from several countries being retroactively caught doping. Many of them are from Russia, where the doping scandal that has engulfed the country since the fall, when Pound dropped his bombshell of a report on widespread drug use in the Russian track and field system, has spread to include allegations that at least 15 Russian medallists from the 2014 Sochi Olympics are linked to performance-enhancing drug use.

The incentive to cheat is greater than the price you have to pay if you get caught.- Victor Conte

Now the world is watching to see if Russian track and field athletes will be allowed to compete in the upcoming Rio Olympics. They're currently suspended after an investigation, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and led by Pound, uncovered an extensive and allegedly state-sponsored doping regime.

The IOC and track and field's governing body, the IAAF, will decide Russia's fate by June 17.

Pound warns of the consequences of allowing the Russians to compete in Rio.

"People are going to say, 'Why are you watching the Olympics if they're all fixed and nobody cares? What's the point?' So you start to lose your spectator base and sponsors," the Canadian says during a recent interview in the lobby of a downtown Toronto hotel. "And broadcasters are going say, 'Why will we broadcast something that nobody is watching?'

"You risk the whole system imploding."

Pound says keeping Russian athletes from competing in Rio is hardly a panacea, but it will serve notice that even the "big guys" can and will be punished.

"That will send a message," he says.

Testing 'a mess'

Another prominent — and controversial — player from the ongoing drama of doping in sports wants to go even further.

Victor Conte says the record books should be wiped clean in track and field, and the sport should begin fresh with a testing regime that actually works and will finally ferret out cheaters.

"It's a mess," Conte says over the phone from California. "The incentive to cheat is greater than the price you have to pay if you get caught."

You may remember Conte from the BALCO scandal that rocked baseball and track earlier this century. In 2009, Conte was sentenced to four months in prison and four months' home confinement for his role in distributing steroids to a number of high-profile athletes — including baseball star Barry Bonds and track standout Marion Jones — through his business, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative.

When it comes to drugs and gaining a competitive advantage, few know more than Conte about what athletes will do to get ahead and why investigators continue to fail in their efforts to keep sports clean.

Even Pound, who has devoted much of his career trying to catch guys like him, says Conte's credentials can't be ignored.

"He knows what he's talking about," says the former WADA head.

Conte says it not just the pressure to compete against contemporaries that drives athletes to drug use, but also the burden of chasing a history of drug-aided results — especially in women's track, where many records from the 1980s and early '90s still stand because of the rampant drug use in that era.

"Forcing the current, modern-day athletes to compete against records that are 30 years old, achieved almost certainly using drugs, is simply unfair," says Conte.

For example, the women's 400m record of 47.60 seconds set by East Germany's Marita Koch in 1985 still stands. The winner in that event at last year's world championships, American Allyson Felix, ran 49.26. Not even close.

"[Today] you have faster tracks, better spikes, better nutrition, better training," Conte says. "So when you're running 10 metres slower 30 years later, something is wrong."

Cheap and undetectable

Athletes around the world continue to try and find an edge. And many agree that if they compete for a lenient country and have access to the best science, there is little chance of detection.

The latest craze, Conte says, is so-called peptide hormones, which produce more growth hormone in the body or increase the impact of naturally produced testosterone. Conte says use of this type of drug is "rampant" because "they don`t have a test" for it. The most popular product, he says, is IGF1-LR3, which slowly releases synthetic testosterone and basically doubles an athlete's circulating testosterone level. But when tested, most athletes still come under WADA`s accepted maximum testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of 4:1 (most men's ratio is around 1:1).

Make no mistake about it — there are rewards to using these substances. They work. They make great athletes even greater.- Jeff Novitzky

"People are using it, you can buy it relatively cheap on the internet and there is no test for it yet, Conte says. "The only way they could bring charges against you was if they did the test over a period of time, say six months on a monthly basis, and they had six different tests showing fluctuations. So in other words you would have to use a biological passport approach. They are not going to do that. They are not testing that many times."

Officials acknowledge that the testing required to detect this drug — the "biological passport" that Conte alludes to, which establishes baseline levels for each athlete — is costly and difficult to administer.

"It's resource-intensive because typically you are going to do about four tests a year to establish that baseline on an athlete. And then you are doing testing after that," explains Paul Melia, who heads the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which administers Canada's anti-doping efforts. "You can imagine, depending on the size of your athlete pool, trying to get all of your athletes on that can be very costly."

Investigations add muscle

That doesn't mean authorities have simply given up. While the scientific game of cat and mouse continues, the most successful anti-doping nations have focused their efforts on investigating the pedlars of performance-enhancing drugs.

Jeff Novitzky is currently the vice president of athlete health and performance for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), but he's best known for his time as the U.S government's lead investigator for numerous steroid investigations, including those targeting Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong and Victor Conte.

"A solid anti-doping program just with drug testing itself is not enough in this day and age," he says. "Multiple large anti-doping distribution cases that I investigated wouldn't have otherwise been uncovered without the investigatory angle to them."

Novitzky cites the example of a cyclist who was caught using the drug EPO by the United States Anti-Doping Agency to show how law-enforcement tactics were used to nail dopers.

"If you have somebody come in and you get him on something, you attempt to flip that individual," he says.

In this case the cyclist was eventually turned over to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"I used him to open up an investigation and ultimately we were able to prosecute and convict the person that was running the website [that was selling drugs to the cyclist]," Novitzky says. "That person then came in and began co-operating with me from a law enforcement side, saying 'hey, here's all my customers.' USADA then used that [information] and sanctioned a handful of athletes."

Risk/reward

In Canada, efforts like this are in their infancy. Melia says deeper relationships with law enforcement need to be developed.

"When the CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency] confiscates steroids at the border and computers with names and files on them, we can't get access to those," he laments, pointing to Canadian privacy legislation. "Sometimes police or border services aren't interested in anabolic steroids because they're not criminal... so we are not benefiting from information that might allow us to carry out an investigation that might allow us to identify a trainer or a doctor or a coach. It's a big area of work we've got to get better at."

Still, Canada's drug-testing regime is considered one of the world's best. It's one of a handful of countries, it appears, that are actually trying to enforce the World Anti-Doping Code as it was designed.

Pound says countries like Russia and Jamaica are doing the opposite, and there are several ways to skirt the rules.

Some countries "don't have the right testing pool for athletes," Pound explains, "so a lot of the athletes that will be in the Olympic Games aren't even in your registered testing pool... they're not being tested before the Games. Or you have the right athletes in the testing pool but the test program is not designed to catch anybody, it's just simply designed to do tests that are not going to be positive."

Pound adds: "We saw in Jamaica, leading up to Beijing and London, for the Olympic years there were maybe six tests performed in a country whose sprint athletes dominate."

"If I were the king of a small island that has maybe two million people on it and was getting hands-down the best outcomes of any country, I would make sure that I had the best and the most documented anti-doping program on the planet because people are going to look at that performance record and say 'how is this possible?'" 

Pound and many others say it's become clear many nations simply don't have the resources or the desire to catch cheaters. He says the Western concept of "fair play" is not always exportable to other countries around the world. For this reason, he believes drug testing and investigation must be taken over by an internationally funded agency.

In the meantime, there are other deterrents emerging. The IOC is saving samples from the Olympics for 10 years for potential retroactive testing of the kind that has already caught several medallists from the last two Summer Games.

"It's a deterrent effect for athletes to know that, hey, you might be getting away with something today, but two or three years down the road you may not," Pound says. Maybe you're not competing in sport any more [by that time], but your legacy is at stake."

Pound says a lifetime ban for first offenders that some are advocating wouldn't be tolerated by European courts, but many believe tougher sanctions than the current ones are needed when athletes are caught cheating.

"They need to be severe enough so that the risk outweighs the rewards. And make no mistake about it — there are rewards to using these substances," Novitzky says. "They work. They make great athletes even greater."

That leaves Pound and the Olympic movement as a whole to grabble with the question: In a world where the testers are seemingly always one step behind the athletes and scientists, does the incentive to cheat outweigh the incentive to play fair? 

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