Geeska Afrika Online

How fame, money and Olympics drive doping

NAIROBI (HAN) July 27.2016. Public Diplomacy & Regional Security News. The allure of a medal from the Olympic Games is unmatched by any other sporting event, perhaps barring a winner’s medal at the Fifa Soccer World Cup.

A podium finish at the Olympic Games brings with it a flood of opportunities and prospects for an athlete.

It is for this reason that even professional sports people have begun to find participation in the Olympics attractive.

No one would have thought that professionals in tennis, soccer and now even golf would consider participation in the Olympics — previously a preserve of amateurs.

The reason of this change is obvious: While there is no money to be won, the Olympic medal presents a platform for global acclaim from which all the other things, money included, will flow naturally.

It is at the 1988 Seoul Olympics that American sprinter Ben Johnson ran the 100 metres finals and won the gold medal in a record 9.79 seconds. It is also here that Kenya’s Robert Wangila, won his boxing gold medals and thereafter went into professional boxing in the United States.

In the same edition, Kenya registered its then best performance at the Olympics with five gold medals.

Although Ben Johnson’s win and gold medal soon imploded after post-race tests showed traces of an anabolic steroid known as stanozolol in his blood samples, the Kenyans’ victories were largely unchallenged.

This may have been the first time that many people particularly in Kenya learnt of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

Performance enhancing drugs are substances that are ingested or taken by an athlete into their body to improve their performance in a manner that gives them an advantage which is not otherwise naturally possible. In other words, they are a short-cut to excellence in sports.

In 1988, no one imagined that PEDs such as the steroids that Ben Johnson was involved with would be used by African athletes. After all, Kenyan and African athletes were dominant in races that they were physiologically and environmentally equipped to excel in — middle and long-distance.

PEDs — the thinking went and still seems to hold in Africa and even Kenya — were largely of concern when it came to athletes in Eastern Europe and the West. It is why the insistence by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that Kenya legislate against doping in sports appeared to most Kenyans as suspicious.

Why, many asked, would this be a necessary condition for participation in the Olympics when our athletes do not use PEDs?

To their credit, the Sports Ministry prepared and the National Assembly passed the Anti-Doping Bill into law.

Further amendments were made to this law on the insistence of the IAAF to ensure compliance by Kenya prior to the Olympics. At some point, it appeared that the passing of the law was a condition of Kenyan athletes being permitted to participate at the Rio Olympics 2016.

In the past few weeks, there has been an imbroglio in Kenyan athletics following the arrest and arraignment of some persons on charges of committing offences relating to doping of athletes.

Although these people are not Kenyan, they run training camps in the country and manage Kenyan athletes, some of whom are in the Kenya Olympic team.

Why Kenyans? Why would an athlete want to get involved in the use of PEDs?

The answers are manifold and complex. One, PEDs seem to work. Ben Johnson’s 9.79 seconds run was unsurpassed until 1999. Not only that, PEDs seem to work across most sports, where record setting athletes have been found or admitted to have used PEDs.

Whether it is in boxing, where American boxer Shane Mosley admitted to being on banned PEDs when he won his world championship fights against Oscar de La Hoya in 2003, to Marion Jones in athletics, who admitted to using steroids prior to and in preparation for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 at which she won five medals (three gold and two bronze).

A reasoned decision by the WADA and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) on cycling found that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong had been using PEDs for most of his cycling career.

Barry Bonds was not to be left behind in baseball. He was on steroids when he hit the season record 73 Home Runs for a single baseball athlete in the year 2003.

Two, the cash windfall that comes with success in sports is huge: Appearance fees and endorsement deals from sports goods and other merchandise manufacturers. If the athlete has personal charisma worthy of modelling and event appearances, he/she will find well remunerated speaking assignments.

The marketing celebrity that comes with success at sports brought Ben Johnson some $480,000 per month at the zenith of his fame; Lance Armstrong is still estimated to be worth north of $60 million even after demands for the refund of prize winnings and revocation of promotional deals.

African athletes are also jumping into this gravy train. Ed Caesar, in Two hours: The quest to run the impossible marathon, says that by the time one Kenyan athlete was 21 years old, he had signed an endorsement contract with the sports goods company Nike, was an Olympic champion and had earned at least $1 million from running marathons.

Further, by the time he died at the age of 25, he had earned almost $8 million from sport without doping. The possibility of this kind of financial windfall for a sportsman would provide an incentive, however perverse, for a dishonest athlete to cheat by ingesting PEDs.

With the financial windfall comes persons hanging onto their running spikes in the form of coaches, trainers and promotional managers.

The managers take a proportion — from five to 25 per cent — of the athlete’s winnings as fees.

It is, therefore, possible that the thrust towards doping for an athlete could be inculcated by a manager or agent keen to make more from an athlete’s winnings.

The business and financial interests that drive doping in sport do not end with the athlete and their coaches, trainers and agents. These are the demand side.

The real driver — the supply side — lies with the rogue professionals who are engaged in providing the PEDs. The infamous Balco scandal in the US is a good example.

The Balco scandal

The Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (Balco) was founded in 1984 in the Bay area of San Francisco as a sport supplements company. Victor Conte, who established the business, devised a system of testing athletes for mineral deficiencies in their bodies aimed at achieving an optimal mineral balance.

Working with a chemist and a personal trainer, the company was soon able to produce a range of performance enhancing substances that could be scheduled in a way that could not be detected in sports drug-testing. A range of professional athletes became Balco’s customers.

These drugs could be used with mineral supplements to improve performance by athletes. The technology on this is so runaway, that there are prescriptions to follow up the PEDs that effectively hide the fact of use of PEDs. These are aptly named masking agents.

Balco’s main business became the supply of Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) and Erythropoietin (EPO). THG is a designer steroid that makes the body’s muscles grow bigger and stronger within a duration that would otherwise not be possible without a lot of exercise.

Its use would therefore be obvious in combat or physical contact sports such as rugby, baseball or American football. EPO, on its part, is a hormone naturally produced by the kidneys that stimulates the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen in the blood.

It is often used therapeutically for persons suffering from anaemia to assist them to produce more red blood cells.

However, used by an athlete, the EPO allows them to train harder and develop endurance in training. A cheating boxer named Shane Mosley admitted to having used EPO shortly before a championship fight.

EPO can also be of use to a long distance runner or rider. Balco also produced and sold athletes a hormone known as Modafinil that increases mental alertness and reaction time – perfect for sprinters, for example.

In other words, Conte ran a thriving business out of helping athletes take PEDs that could not be detected. Shane Mosley, Barry Bonds and Marion Jones were some of Balco’s customers.

Until a tipster, who happened to be the coach of one of the American sprinters, sent Usada a syringe with a mysterious substance, which on testing turned out to have been THG, this business went on undetected with tremendous profits to Balco and the athletes.

The big lesson here for anti-doping agencies was that the rogue scientists are often way ahead of them. They have produced, tested and given to athletes substances which are as yet unknown to the authorities.

Conte was prosecuted and jailed for the Balco scandal, but there is no reason to believe that he was the last of them.

Neither are sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, tennis player Maria Sharapova, cyclist Lance Armstrong and boxer Shane Mosely the last of the Mohicans in the game of doping in sports.

Many would say there is unlikely to be an equivalent of Victor Conte-type professional doping consultants or even business enterprises in Africa on the scale of Balco. This may be true.

The scientific methods by which genes are modified in laboratories and through drugs to enhance athletic performance (known as gene doping) is still nascent. But doping can still be undertaken in simple ways and through easily available substances.

EPO, for example, is widely used in the treatment of anaemia although highly controlled.

There are alternatives to EPO such as blood doping, which involves an athlete having his blood withdrawn from his body for storage only for the same to be transfused to him prior to or during a competition to increase the red blood cells and improve the athlete’s endurance and performance. This is what Lance Armstrong was said to have been doing.

Blood doping

A study found that blood doping increased the stamina of a normal human being by up to 34 per cent. Thus, blood doping would have phenomenal effects on the performance of that athlete.

Then there are anabolic steroids. These are hormones such as testosterone that are found naturally in the human body in varying quantities.

They are used by doctors in traditional medicine prescriptions for patients who may have illnesses that cause their muscles to degenerate. Some HIV/Aids patients may have prescription of testosterone hormones as part of their therapeutic regime.

Once again, rogue practitioners could step in and prescribe these hormones to athletes to influence their performance. These are therefore as available to an African athlete as they would be to anyone else.

Back to the African athlete, it has been argued that East African athletes do not need to use performance enhancing substances because their high altitude training has attuned them to naturally perform exceptionally at middle and long-distance races.

But it has also been proven scientifically that PEDs improve the performance of all kinds of athletes. This economic incentive and the availability of the PEDs coupled with instances of some East African athletes being caught doping, should make us all wake up and admit to the scrutiny that the world demands of us.

The anti-doping legislation passed by Kenya is commendable but its administration will need to be tightly monitored by the establishment of drug-testing regimes that require all athletes to be subjected to random testing.

The rationale for random testing comes from the realisation that testing only during competitions may be in vain due the existence of masking agents that can be used to camouflage the use of PEDs so that they are undetectable during competition testing.

As Kenyans go to the Olympics with high expectations, the sense of nationalism must not drown out the truth that doping is pervasive in sport and that some of their compatriots could very likely be doping.

This is what we must hope does not happen to Kenya’s Olympic dream built out of the sweat and effort of honest, hard-working athletes.




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