Futility causes fatigue in drug-cheat chase

Updated: June 28, 2006, 3:55 PM ET
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

These are dark days for juicers. Jason Grimsley's pitching career is over, but his stint as a big-time defendant has just begun. David Segui might be the first of a boatload of names to go from redacted to fingered in a federal HGH probe. George Mitchell is rattling cages all around Major League Baseball.

Yet, these might be even darker days for the anti-dopers. To them, the Grimsley affair signals the continuation of a seemingly endless cycle of futility. No sooner do leagues toughen their substance-abuse policies than they're rendered laughable by Texas-sized loopholes. No sooner do the leagues' testing labs figure out how to unmask a hot designer steroid than rogue labs switch to the production of a new, more undetectable substance.

Even Dr. Gary Wadler, a prominent anti-doping activist, sounds like a man with futility fatigue.

Kurt Snibbe for ESPN.com
"We are swimming against the current in many ways," says Wadler, a New York sports-medicine physician and adviser to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). He doubts baseball's new anti-drug policies are driving out steroids, for example, because HGH allows players to scale back their usage.

"It's poly-pharmacy," he says. "They're taking lower doses of steroids to get them under the radar, combined with HGH."

To Wadler, HGH is also a harbinger of increasingly sophisticated, decreasingly detectable performance enhancers in sports, which pose even thornier problems than steroids. Not only are they harder to police, but they're even easier to get -- a diversion of prescription drugs and scientific advances for illegitimate purposes. HGH has long been perfectly legal for growth-challenged children and pituitary-deficient adults. In the past year, the FDA has approved two new drugs for children with deficient "insulin-like growth factor" (IGF-1). That's great news for parents of children who aren't growing, and also for juicers who see such IGF-1 boosters as the next big thing.

And the ultimate in performance enhancement and detection evasion might be just over the horizon: genetic engineering.

The frontier for that kind of doping isn't at shady labs like BALCO, but at prestigious ones such as the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. Through genetic engineering, its scientists have developed super-rodents they call "marathon mice" who can run twice as far as regular mice. Since announcing this development in 2004, project leader Dr. Ronald Evans has been bombarded by letters and e-mails from everyone from horse trainers to athletes to athletes' parents. According to Evans, they all ask the same question: Can we get some of what you have?

The Salk lab's work is meant to help people with diabetes and heart disease, not elite athletes with trophy lust. But its researchers now understand all too well the anything-for-an-edge sports world -- as do those at the University of Pennsylvania, who've developed super-strong "Schwarzenegger mice" and also are hounded by performance-enhancer junkies. "Athletes are risk-takers," says Evans. "They'll do something like this even though they don't know what it is or whether it's safe."

As a practical matter, Salk's development of these "mighty mouses" is probably years from being applicable to humans. But according to Evans, "It literally could be done now. It wouldn't be easy, but it could be done."

For WADA, it's enough of a concern that it has contracted with Salk to develop a test for such genetic doping.

It's hard to like the regulators' odds of beating the genetic dopers when they've been so thwarted to date by the far less sophisticated HGH. Its emergence as the "it" drug of today is hardly confined to baseball, despite the recent spate of Grimsley-and-Segui headlines. Because it works nicely in combination with other performance enhancers and because a reliable test has yet to be incorporated into most drug policies, Wadler says he'd be concerned about HGH "in any sport where bigness and strength are attributes."

The recent conviction of James Shortt, a South Carolina physician who provided HGH and steroids to Carolina Panthers players (among other patients), suggests there is a strong underground market in the NFL, in the view of Wadler, an expert witness at Shortt's trial.

To some, HGH is a case study that helps explain the futility cycle, whereby the white hats often seem overmatched by the dark side.

"Medical science is advancing exponentially, and you've got sports physicians and sports scientists pouncing on all these new products to see how they can be used for athletic performance," says Dr. Chuck Yesalis, an epidemiologist and steroids expert. "Every time you patch a hole in the dike, a new problem comes spurting out somewhere else."

HGH has been around since the 1980s, but back then it was ingested by only the most aggressive, or most addled, bodybuilders. It was a product of ground-up pituitary glands from cadavers, and it was dangerous. In the 1990s, HGH became safer and more widely used after a process was developed to synthesize it through recombinant DNA. The growing use of HGH sneaked up on regulators, who were focused on combating steroids. There was no accepted WADA-approved test for HGH until the 2004 Athens Olympics. And even then, only a few hundred have ever been administered, because no commercial lab was engaged to produce testing "kits" en masse.

Jason Grimsley
AP PhotoJason Grimsley's admissions provide a rare glimpse into HGH use in baseball.
WADA says it's now close to contracting with a commercial lab for HGH tests, but Yesalis, who recently retired from Penn State and now runs a doping education Web site, believes the time lag speaks poorly for the good guys. WADA is half funded by the International Olympic Committee, with the remainder coming in contributions from 186 member countries.

"And they're saying 'We couldn't get enough antibodies [for the test]'?'' asks Yesalis, aghast at the lack of cash and urgency brought to bear on the HGH tests. "I'm sorry, that's the talk of children. It's laugh-out-loud funny."

Even when production kicks in for HGH tests, they won't be easily accepted by the U.S. major leagues because they'll likely require the drawing of blood. Athletes from 40 sports and 119 countries submitted to WADA drug screening last year, thereby agreeing to have their blood drawn. (Only 5 percent were actually blood tests.) But American player unions will resist that, insisting on only urine testing. "You don't want to rip a guy open when it's not necessary," says Stacy Robinson, who oversees testing for the NFL Players Association.

Nor are league managements pushing for blood tests. Instead, MLB has made a $500,000 grant to the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory to develop a urine test for HGH. The NFL will soon announce a similar initiative with the University of Utah's sports medicine lab. (The NFL has had HGH on its banned-substances list since 1991; but, like most of the rest of the sports world, has never tested for it.) Most doping experts are dubious that such an HGH test can be developed, since only small traces of the substance work their way into urine. Some charge it shows only a continuing lack of substance in the leagues' substance-abuse programs.

"I'm skeptical of all of them," says Yesalis, who believes the sports' insistence on policing themselves and refusing to relinquish oversight to an independent authority is a non-starter from the outset. "If you want to believe Bud Selig or Paul Tagliabue, OK. But these are non-transparent systems."

Except for baseball, where Selig has taken out full-page newspaper ads to address the HGH issue, most commissioners act as if drug abuse is virtually a nonissue. Consider their congressional testimony last year. NBA commissioner David Stern testified that "the sport of basketball emphasizes a specialized set of physical abilities, particularly quickness, agility and basketball skill" that wouldn't be helped by the kind of performance-enhancing drugs that might be found in the strength, power and endurance sports. Of the 4,200 tests for steroids and other banned drugs administered to NBA players since 1999, he reported, only three had confirmed positive results.

Tagliabue told Congress the NFL's tough anti-drug policies, dating back to the 1980s, ensures "virtually all our players get the message and participate in the NFL without using anabolic steroids or other performance-enhancing substances." The problem in the NHL wasn't juicers, according to commissioner Gary Bettman; it was boozers. "Historically, the players who have been treated under the substance abuse program have exhibited problems associated with alcohol and/or recreational drug use rather than steroid use," he testified.

Nonetheless, threatened by legislation that would have forced adoption of WADA's strict "banned substances" code and WADA's stiff penalties (a two-year suspension for a first violation, lifetime ban for a second), the leagues all took some get-tough -- or at least get-tougher -- steps in the past year. The NBA, whose non-rookies used to be tested just once a year in training camp, increased the requirement to four random tests per season in the league's new labor deal. The NHL, which until last year required no drug testing of its players, now requires two random tests each season, per its lockout-ending labor contract. The NFL tripled its tests for performance-enhancing drugs from two to six per year and, just this week, announced tougher sanctions against players who test positive. Beginning in the 2007 season, players face an eight-game suspension (up from six) if they fail a test for the second time.

Dr. Gary Wadler
AP PhotoDr. Gary Wadler is fighting the good fight, but isn't sure his side can win.
MLB stiffened its steroids sanctions to 50-game suspensions for a first violation, 100 games for a second and lifetime bans for a third.

But consider: The NBA still requires no player testing in the offseason, when some of the most serious doping occurs as part of conditioning regimens. (In baseball, Barry Bonds famously supersized himself between the 1998 and 1999 seasons.) The NHL announced 1,406 "clean" tests and no positives in its just-concluded season -- yet the league based its in-season testing on WADA's more limited "out of competition" standards, which excluded substances like amphetamines. The NFL just this year got around to putting amphetamines on its "banned" list of performance-enhancers.

And aspects of MLB's new drug policy still appall its critics, like deciding not to ban the endurance booster EPO after a random sample of 200 players.

"Give me a break; that's not a basis!" declares Wadler. "I don't care if nobody tested positive. If a substance gives an athlete an unfair advantage or is a risk to his health or violates the spirit of the sport, it should be banned."

It worked that way, according to MLB labor-relations chief Rob Manfred, because while officials doubted baseball has an EPO problem, they wanted to satisfy themselves by testing the 200 players for it. There were no positives.

The dynamic is clear, in the view of John Hoberman, whose book "Testosterone Dreams" examines the history and hypocrisy of sports doping. While players and owners fight furiously over economic issues, they're often cozily on the same side when it comes to drug issues. "They're not conspiracies; they're arrangements," says Hoberman, a University of Texas professor. Both parties have much at stake economically, "and the show must go on. The idea of commercial operations which sell athletic performance to police their own athletes is an obvious conflict of interest."

The leagues take issue with that, of course. "That's a specious argument," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says of the conflict-of-interest contention. "It's very much in our economic interest to keep doping out of our game and protect its integrity." Aiello notes the league has done its drug-testing at a WADA-certified lab -- the UCLA facility -- and that it has aggressively disciplined violators. Since 1989, Aiello points out, the NFL has suspended 144 players for substance-abuse violations, including 54 for steroids.

Nonetheless, Hoberman and plenty of other students of the issue wish Congress had passed some version of sports-doping legislation, which would have removed the leagues' autonomy on these matters. As a useful precedent, they point to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), formed in 2000 because the U.S. Olympic Committee had the same problem as the major leagues. It couldn't reconcile trying to maximize American gold medals while simultaneously trying to keep American athletes clean, so the police function was turned over to USADA, which has done its job aggressively. The Colorado Springs-based agency teamed with federal agents to investigate and bust BALCO, whose best customers reportedly included track-and-field athletes such as Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

It was the threat of congressional action that caused MLB to strengthen its drug policies last November, and perhaps forestall more sweeping legislative changes. The politicians thereupon declared baseball cleansed, and the bills' momentum died. Now, the anti-doping crusaders who had their moment in the sun at last year's Capitol Hill hearings see little evidence Congress is itching to take the issue back up. Matters such as gas prices and illegal aliens have superseded sports doping as election-year flavors of the month.

Richard Pound
WADA chair Richard Pound hasn't endeared himself to some in America's pro sports.
The crusaders also have been undermined by controversy surrounding their own titular leader, WADA chairman Dick Pound. A recent report commissioned by the International Cycling Union cleared Lance Armstrong of a doping charge at the 1999 Tour de France and sharply criticized WADA for its role in the investigation. Armstrong said the report proves the agency was on a "witch hunt" and called on the International Olympic Committee to suspend or expel Pound, who represents Canada on the IOC. The NHL's deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, seconds that motion after enduring what he calls repeated "outrageous" criticisms of the league's drug-testing from Pound.

"He throws out these assertions [such as one-third of NHL players being on performance-enhancing drugs] without any basis of fact," says Daly.

But Wadler, the physician and consultant to WADA, maintains such problems with that agency don't override the more fundamental problems with the drug policies of the U.S. major leagues.

"It's as much a matter of process as anything," he says, giving as an example WADA's soon-to-be-updated banned-substances list. Wadler is part of a committee that will comb the scientific evidence, submit proposed changes to fellow experts and member sports federations around the world, consider feedback, and eventually post the new list in January 2007. "It's a very tedious process, with global input and great transparency," he says. "I submit there is no such thing in the professional sports leagues."

Between the Jason Grimsleys of today and what the marathon mice portend for tomorrow, sports is swiftly coming to an inflection point. Are fans truly outraged by doping, and will they pressure leagues and other authorities to rein it in? Or are they getting what most of them, deep down, really want: larger-than-life athletes performing larger-than-life feats?

"Sports could go down the road of the performance principle, where all that matters is success, by whatever means, at what cost," says Thomas Murray, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center think tank and chairman of WADA's Ethical Issues Review Panel. "If we continue on that track, sports will become spectacle; and some people like that. But I think most of us who love sports will lose interest in it."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."