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Who’s Afraid of Erythropoietin?

The trouble with doping detectives is that they are human – just as human as the athletes they test and investigate.

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The Olympics, that's who

Erythropoietin, bupropion and glucocorticosteroids are just a few words that most sports fans cannot pronounce and would rather not think about this Olympic season.

But advances in modern sport – jumping higher, running faster, lasting longer – have been hastened physically and undermined morally by the news that some athletes cheat with performance-enhancing drugs.

Most everybody agrees that something must be done to police athletes fairly and effectively.

Yet this is easier said than done. The people who test and investigate athletes can make mistakes, and as the techniques for testing improve, they have become so sensitive that subjectivity creeps in.

A positive test of an athlete's urine or blood might mean he ingested a tiny amount of a banned substance, quite innocently, as an ingredient of something else – like cough medicine. Is he guilty? It's a human question, not merely scientific.

By the time these Winter Olympic Games are over, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will have carried out over 1800 drug-tests on the athletes performing there, and pre-game testing began already.

Downhill, fast

They can hardly afford not to test so aggressively.

Past doping scandals have sent the credibility of some of the world's greatest sporting events downhill, fast.

IOC President Jacques Rogge has called doping "the biggest threat facing the world sports movement today,", and the Salt Lake City games look certain to see some controversy of their own.

Russian cross-country skier Natalia Baranova-Masolkin tested positive for erythropoietin, a stamina-increasing drug, and lost her chance to participate.

But Latvian bobsledder Sandis Prusis got off more lightly. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the decision of the International Bobsleigh and Tobogganing Federation (IBTF), allowing Prusis to compete just months after he tested positive for a banned substance. The usual penalty is two years for a first offense.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) fired out a stinging press release, saying the CAS's decision on Prusis "does not promote doping-free sport."

Deedee Corradini in Nagano mit der olympischen Flagge

Reputation 'rehab'

Keeping track of all the acronyms is almost as difficult as spelling the names of banned substances (but the CAS won't admit it to the WADA). As for the athletes, they have their hands full, keeping their diets clean.

Athlete's struggle with all this is one reason why a 12-member WADA team is present in Salt Lake City to "independently monitor" the IOC's drug-testing unit.

In a Games obsessed with security, jet fighters will patrol the skies while WADA will keep its collective eye on ski-jumpers' blood-samples and little cups of ice-dancers' urine, lest anything go awry.

It is, in a sense, the same treatment banana republics get when the great and the good sweep into town to observe their elections – trusting but verifying. It is a shame, but necessary.

There's nothing like cheating to corrupt the brotherhood of humanity for which the Olympic Games, in their ideal state, still stand.

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