Jones case ends a long, hot doping scandal summer

Originally Published: September 7, 2006
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

The summer that brought a steadily louder drumbeat of doping scandals -- Jason Grimsley in Major League Baseball, Floyd Landis in the Tour de France, Justin Gatlin in track and field, six Carolina Panthers in the NFL -- has ended with a soft thud. Wednesday night's announcement that Marion Jones tested negative for EPO on her "B" sample has cleared her of using the endurance enhancer.

That development underscores the huge challenges faced by those who police athletic doping, despite the recent spate of high-profile busts and some severe ensuing sanctions -- Landis stripped of his championship, Gatlin suspended for eight years. The newer performance-enhancing drugs like EPO are tougher than anabolic steroids to detect reliably. Positive test results are more easily challenged, as Jones and her attorneys successfully did.

They are the wave of the doping future.

Marion Jones
AP Photo/Eric RisbergThe sad truth is that the Marion Jones case might be the anomaly.
Nonetheless, while Jones gets a reprieve and the doping police absorb a setback, the drumbeat of drug scandals very likely will resume soon. There are two good reasons for that, according to Gary Wadler, a New York sports doctor and a consultant to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

"Doping continues to be more prolific. But, on the flip side, our diligence and detective work is better," he says, noting several specifics:

• More sophisticated lab technology has made it harder for athletes to mask certain performance enhancers. Landis and Gatlin, for example, were both nabbed through carbon isotope testing.

• Some major enforcers, like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), have become more aggressive, not just at gathering urine and blood samples but at collecting intelligence allowing them to target suspected dopers.

• Some sports leagues and federations, traditional foot-draggers on doping matters, are becoming more vigilant.

"I met recently with World Cup officials, and they're doing a first-rate job," says Wadler. "They're an example of a professional sport that can buy into WADA's anti-doping code."

The summer-long spate of publicity has turned up the heat on other sports to address drugs. Roger Goodell, the NFL's new commissioner, has vowed to revisit his league's drug policy in the wake of the Panthers scandal. (A South Carolina doctor, James Shortt, pleaded guilty to illegally providing steroids and human growth hormone to patients, including six Carolina players, none of whom ever tested positive.) PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said this week he'll review whether the tour should have drug testing, after he'd previously asserted his game was clean and didn't need it. Tiger Woods and some other players have come out in favor of testing.

The specter of doping -- and the pressure to do something about it -- affects sports very differently. For track and field, it could be a javelin-sized stake through the heart. Already sparsely followed in America, it could be even more marginalized if seen as a hopelessly dope-drenched sport. Marion Jones technically was cleared, but she's still inextricably linked with track's drug scandals. Her former husband is shot-putter C.J. Hunter, who served a two-year ban for steroids; and her child's father is sprinter Tim Montgomery, who's currently on doping suspension.

Floyd Landis
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFloyd Landis hasn't had much to celebrate since the Tour de France ended.
On the other hand, Major League Baseball's popularity has suffered little from the steroids spotlight on Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, et al. The NFL will have to take many more doping hits before it reaches the red zone of a P.R. crisis.

"You have to wonder," says John Hoberman, whose book "Testosterone Dreams" chronicles the history and hypocrisy of sports doping, "to what extent is this crusade on behalf of a public that may or may not care?"

You also have to wonder whether the summer-long string of busts was a fluke. It was not, certainly, in the sense that the episodes revealed a vast presence of doping. It might have been fluky, however, in the particulars. Grimsley, the former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher, didn't get caught by a drug test; he got caught receiving HGH in the mail. Landis and Gatlin got caught with high levels of old-fashioned synthetic testosterone, the easiest thing out there to detect in a test. The Jones case reflects the more common, cold reality: When it comes to the newer designer drugs like EPO, the nets being cast by the authorities aren't nearly as effective.

"There's a different science to identifying things like EPO [versus anabolic steroids], because they're naturally found in the body," says David Black, whose Aegis Sciences lab in Nashville performs sports and workplace doping tests. EPO, short for erythropoietin, is a hormone released from the kidneys to stimulate red blood cell production. That increases the amount of oxygen the blood can carry to the body's muscles. EPO in drug form boosts oxygen levels a lot more, thickening the blood and enhancing endurance. EPO as a performance enhancer has mostly been associated with long-distance competitors like cyclists, but is now also being used by some sprinters.

According to Black, the "old" synthetic performance enhancers such as steroids have low-weight molecules. Enhancers like EPO, based on natural substances, have higher-weight molecules and require a form of testing that is less developed. Steroids tests have been around and been refined for many years. The test for EPO has only been employed since 2000.

"There's some degree of subjectivity and a greater risk of something going wrong with the sample," Black says.

The subjectivity explains why two lab technicians can reach different conclusions on the "A" and "B" samples. Three years before the Marion Jones case, 1,500-meter runner Bernard Lagat also tested positive for EPO in his "A" sample, but was cleared when his "B" sample tested negative.

Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesGatlin is only 24 years old, but his career might be finished.
Travis Tygart, general counsel of USADA, declined to comment on the Jones case but defended the EPO test, which he says was developed by top scientific experts on EPO, refined from a combination blood and urine test to a simpler urine-only test and has been accepted as valid by the arbitration panel that hears doping disputes.

"We continue to monitor the research and attempt to improve the test, but we are very confident in it," Tygart says.

Black is discouraged about the outlook because so many other wonder drugs are coming along behind EPO. Just as EPO was developed to treat anemia related to cancer and kidney disease, he fears that other new miracle drugs will be misappropriated by athletes as tough-to-test performance enhancers.

"Picture pharmaceutical companies around the world, investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop medicines for our health," Black says. "Then picture these athletes and their advisers looking at what's new and saying, 'We could use that.' They take advantage of those hundreds of millions of dollars in research. The labs that are supposed to catch them are underfunded and at a tremendous disadvantage.

"I think there's been some serendipity over the summer, but I don't think the tide is turning at all."

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."