Boxing does not escape the specter of steroids
Tuesday afternoon's raid on a Florida pharmacy in connection with the distribution of performance-enhancing drugs has once again shone the spotlight on the issue of steroids and sports. News outlets reported a number of professional athletes as being among the customers of the pharmacy and of an Alabama company that, in a related move, was indicted by a grand jury the same day on suspicion of selling illegal drugs over the Internet. An attorney for Applied Pharmacy Services told Mobile's WALA-TV that federal authorities raided the company last August.
Among those mentioned in connection with the Alabama facility was former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. However, Holyfield told ESPN.com on Wednesday that the only drugs he had ever bought from Alabama were heart medications for his recently deceased father. As for steroids, Holyfield asked rhetorically, "What is it gonna do for me to get on steroids? Enhance me to do what?"
It's rare that boxing is at the center of discussions of sports and steroids, but these developments come at a time when there is growing evidence that the reach of performance-enhancing substances extends between the ropes, and perhaps increasingly so.
Last week, a second sample confirmed that Mariano Carrera tested positive for the anabolic steroid clenbuterol following his World Boxing Association (WBA) junior middleweight title victory over Javier Castillejo in Berlin on Dec. 2. Just three days after that bout, the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended Orlando Salido, who had outpointed Robert Guerrero to win the International Boxing Federation (IBF) featherweight belt in Las Vegas on Nov. 4, when his postfight urinalysis revealed the presence of another steroid, nandrolone. (Both Carrera and Salido were stripped of their titles following the tests.)
Nor are Carrera and Salido the first:
• Frans Botha of South Africa was stripped of the IBF heavyweight title belt he won against Axel Schulz in 1995 after testing positive for steroids, which he and his camp claimed had been prescribed for treatment of an arm injury.
• Roy Jones Jr. and Richard Hall both tested positive for the testosterone precursor androstenedione after Jones defeated Hall to retain his undisputed world light heavyweight championship in Indianapolis in 2000. Jones insisted his test was the result of ingesting the supplement Ripped Fuel.
• Fernando Vargas was suspended for nine months and fined $100,000 for testing positive for the steroid stanozolol following his defeat by Oscar De La Hoya in September 2002. Vargas claimed the steroids were given to him without his knowledge, but he accepted full responsibility.
• James Toney's 2005 victory over WBA heavyweight titlist John Ruiz was changed to a no-contest after Toney tested positive for nandrolone. Toney claimed that the steroids were given to him by a doctor to treat an injured arm suffered during his previous bout, against Rydell Booker.
So is steroid use more widespread in boxing than has previously been acknowledged?
"I tend to think that it's a much bigger problem than we recognize. I think boxing for the most part has ignored it," said Dr. Margaret Goodman, chair of the Medical Advisory Board of the Nevada Athletic Commission. "And I don't think it's related to the positive drug tests that have been turning up lately. I think the problem with boxing is that because there is no federal oversight, commissions don't have to test, and they don't all have to test for the same things when they do test, so there's no standardization. And so more often than not, fighters aren't tested, and don't think they don't know it. And I think if you talk to boxers, I think steroids are readily available in many gyms all over the world."
The scandal that erupted around the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) suggested a world where big-name athletes spent tens of thousands of dollars on finely tuned drug regimes beyond the reach of mere mortals. However, said Richard Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), that's only part of the story.
"The BALCO stuff, you could see the treatments there were $35,000 a year, which clearly favored those who could afford to do it. But there's so much of this stuff available, in gymnasiums and on street corners, that might not be as scientifically administered but is certainly available and consumed," he said.
Certainly, Pound continued, the notion that steroids cause their users only to bulk up -- and thus would be of minimal interest to boxers, who rely on speed, endurance and lean muscle -- is erroneous.
"Anything that increases muscle mass and strength would be of assistance in boxing," he observed. "And also just the recovery from training."
"The reason most fighters use anabolic steroids is not for the bulk," Goodman added. "It's not the big heavyweights that are testing positive, it's the smaller weights. And there's always been this misperception that they're used to put on bulk, whereas in reality they're used by athletes so they can train more. They reduce the time they have to take off if they have a small injury. The problem is that it's a double-edged sword, because steroid use chronically will lead to tendon injuries as well as a breakdown of the bones, making them more brittle."
Throughout the world of sports, said Pound, those who are attempting to catch users of steroid-enhancing drugs are almost inevitably constantly a half-step behind the users and distributors.
"I think you have to expect that there will always be some who don't care what the rules are, and are prepared to take these short cuts, and in a sense they'll always be ahead, in that they're the ones who decide when they're going to do it and what they're going to use," he noted.
Added Mark Fainaru-Wada of the San Francisco Chronicle, co-author of the book "Game of Shadows," which exposed the inner workings of the BALCO case: "I always think the cheaters are going to be ahead of the testers, primarily because there's more money. The testers are always looking for money. So that's a huge issue. I think the cheaters will always be ahead.
"If we learned anything from BALCO, it's that these guys were very smart about testing and they knew how to beat it. There were masking agents, designer steroids, taking things that couldn't be tested for, like human growth hormone. There's just a wide range of ways to get around the process."
That's the case, said Fainaru-Wada, even in those sports that subject their participants to random, unannounced testing, which is demonstrably not the case in boxing. Not all commissions test for drugs, and the few that do focus almost exclusively on championship bouts; none tests boxers except on fight night.
As a result, asserted Flip Homansky, former ringside physician and Nevada state athletic commissioner, only the fighters who "make mistakes" are caught.
"You don't take anabolic steroids or human growth hormone all the time," he pointed out. "You take them in a certain cycle in which you build muscle, build strength, build reflexes, and then you stop the cycle. So, with correct knowledge, someone shouldn't get caught."
Said Fainaru-Wada: "Knowledge is half the deal. If you know when you're going to be tested, that kind of defeats the purpose.
He added, "It does nothing to dissuade the notion of using. That was the joke about baseball for so long. Even when they announced, 'OK, we're going to start testing at spring training,' well, OK, everyone knew when they were going to be tested, so you just took until you knew it was going to be clear of your system, then you stopped, and then you started again. So the notion that it just has to be championship events and that that will somehow eliminate the use of these drugs, is naive. Even the kid who gets a handful of steroids under the table in Mexico should be fine, unless he's an idiot."
"The only way to catch people is not just to test them during competition, but to test them between competitions," said Homansky. "And if boxing wants to get serious, then when people apply for a license in a state, or when people sign for a fight -- let's say Oscar [De La Hoya] and Floyd [Mayweather Jr.]; they signed in December for a fight the next May -- the state where the fight is going to be could insist on part of the language in the contract stating that they can be tested at any time."
The experience of other sports suggests that even that kind of random, universal testing would not necessarily be enough to catch every user or stamp out steroid use.
"Look at the Olympic testing situation," said Fainaru-Wada. "They have year-round testing, unannounced, they have banned for life on your second positive, two-year ban on your first in track and field. That's a pretty substantial set of penalties." And yet, as repeated examples have shown, track athletes continue to test positive -- suggesting strongly that there are many more who are using performance-enhancing drugs who are still able to evade detection. During questioning by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in the wake of BALCO, said Fainaru-Wada, one track athlete told investigators that a field of eight elite female sprinters would include six who were juiced. A second sprinter disagreed. She said all eight would be users.
"You need to have the random testing as part of your arsenal," Pound said. "But the real future in the fight against drugs in sport is going to arise now that governments have adopted an international convention under UNESCO. And they're going to be able to use their investigative powers to go at the upstream side of things, the suppliers, and traffickers."
Nonetheless, before boxing can even begin to approach that stage, argue some, it at least needs to catch up to other sports in terms of testing.
ESPN.com's Mike Fish contributed to this report.
Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters and TigerBoxing.com.
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