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Fifty Years Later, Olympic Anti-Doping Quest is Unrecognizably Changed for the Better

Note: This is the third piece culled from an interview with Professor Arne Ljungqvist. The first two addressed the cultural response and history of doping in Scandinavia and current challenges faced by the International Ski Federation (FIS) and other anti-doping groups today.

Since humans first started challenging each other in feats of athleticism, there have been cheaters. And likely for almost that long, there have been cheaters that used some sort of performance enhancing substances to beat their competitors. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that any international athletic federation began to implement drug testing. Yes, as early as 1928, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned doping – but it was a largely symbolic statement, as there was no real way to implement their rules.

So what changed? According to Professor Arne Ljungqvist, current head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical Commission, vice president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and an anti-doping crusader for the last four decades, it was the death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen that finally brought doping to the forefront of international sports.

“That was too much for the IOC,” Ljundgqvist said of the 1960 incident in Rome while talking to FasterSkier in Stockholm last week. “[Professional] cycling had experienced casualties before, but not in the Olympics … of course this was a death in the Olympics, but it was also the first worldwide televised Olympic Games, so it was bad timing. An Olympian died right in the houses of people, in their living rooms.”

In 1961, the IOC created its Medical Commission with the sole purpose of combating drug use at the Olympics. Nobody would say that the task is finished, but the fight has evolved in the last fifty years and in 1999, the Medical Commission passed the torch on to WADA to supervise and document anti-doping efforts. Considering that it took the original commission six years to issue its first report, the fact that administrators are now not only being forced to, but actually succeeding at, pursuing “non-analytical positives” is a testament to the progress the community has made.

Initially, a Supporting Role

The challenges faced by the IOC in the early 1960s were huge, says Ljungqvist, who was not yet involved in the issue.

“They started from scratch with no knowledge, no background, no competence in this idea,” he marveled. “They tried to identify the problem in terms of quality and quantity and to start to recruit people, and this took a long time. So not until the IOC session in 1967 was there a report about the issue and some draft rules.”

As soon as the report was made, the original head of the commission, Arthur Porrit, resigned and was replaced by Prince Alexandre de Merode of Belgium, the man who would lead the IOC’s anti-doping crusade until his death in 2002 – through ups and downs, scandals, positive tests, and allegations of cover-ups.

Despite having no medical background, de Merode was able to bring knowledgeable people to his team and draw up a list of banned substances. By 1968, there was drug testing at the Olympic Games, but not until 1972 in Munich was it extensive or effective. Among the partners were Professor Arnold Beckett from Kings College in London, an expert in ephedrine and other stimulants, which were being abused by cyclists at the time. (In a strange turn, Beckett exited the IOC in the early 1990s and began supporting athletes who he thought were wrongly accused.)

Another recruit was Manfred Donike, who ran the laboratory at the University of Cologne at the time. Ljungqvist was then working within the IAAF, and teamed up with Donike and Beckett to do drug testing; since the Games were only every four years, the IOC was actually quite limited in its regulation of performance-enhancing substances.

“The first test for anabolic steroids, when we figured out that they were in use in the 1970s, we found out that method for analysis,” Ljungqvist said. “Donike did, within the IAAF concept, and the first tests were conducted at the IAAF European Championships in 1974, not at the Montreal Games in 1976. … It was the international federations that conduct international sport on a year-round basis. The IAAF was the one who started to accredit laboratories, to do out-of-competition testing, to develop methods.”

At this point, it was largely the federations doing the heavy lifting on catching dopers. At the 1976 winter Olympics, 356 tests were performed with two positive results. In that summer Olympics, 275 tests were administered, leading to eight positive tests for steroids. In comparison, approximately about 400 tests were run every day at the London Olympics this summer.

More athletes were being caught in non-Olympic competition. At a 1977 European Cup in Helsinki, the IAAF suspended five athletes in track and field alone, including East German shot putter Ilona Slupianek, one of the only East German athletes to ever fail an international drug test. In 1978, the IAAF suspended five more athletes.

(This wasn’t completely the case: then, as now, the cycling federation fell behind. In the 1972 Olympics, for example, two cyclists were stripped of their medals after testing positive for Coramine, a drug that was banned by the IOC but allowed by the UCI.)

Finally, the IOC was hampered not only by timing and a weak mandate, but also by politics.

“Sports administrators and people high up in the leadership were very ambivalent about us, and the media was not very much on our side,” Ljungqvist said. “There was the Cold War going on. East Germany had very much drug use, and it was the same although less sophisticated in other parts of Europe, and all of this was done to show the superiority of the political system to produce good Olympic athletes. It was part of the Cold War.”

A Canadian Game-Changer

Anti-doping efforts middled along in the 1980s – at the boycotted 1980 summer Games, de Merode reported that there were no positive tests, while in 1984, a Swedish wrestler and a Finnish runner were stripped of their medals. But in many ways, doping was not a priority for the IOC.  Officials in other sections of the IOC believed that the Medical Commission was too big and too costly.

For instance, Norman Hess, a member of the organizing committee for the Lake Placid Games in 1980 and the Assistant Chief of Ski Jumping Calculations there, said that “it would cost Lake Placid far more to provide doping controls than to house and feed the athletes for the whole of the Winter Games.” Despite his objections, $1.4 million were spent administering 790 tests, none of which were positive. De Merode stated publicly that blood doping was not significant or even beneficial to athletes.

Highlighting the IOC’s lack of credibility was de Merode’s biggest scandal: at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, nine samples were “lost.” The twelve athletes suspended for doping violations seemed like a particularly small number given that in the previous year’s Pan American Games in Caracas, the largest doping scandal in sports history had erupted when 15 athletes tested positive, large numbers withdrew from competition rather than be tested, and more deliberately performed below their capabilities to avoid the automatic testing that came with a podium performance.

At that point, many of the tests lagged far behind the dopers themselves. It was easy to evade tests, as evidenced by the East German system. Although many former athletes from East Germany have testified to systematic doping, few ever tested positive. This was partly due to a policy of testing athletes internally before sending them into international competition in order to avoid detection, but it was also because tests were not overly sophisticated.

For instance, Donike personally tested samples from female athletes at the Moscow Games, and found that many, including those of 16 gold medalists, had high levels. However, the IOC hadn’t been interested in testing for testosterone, so his results did not lead to any disciplinary action.

Then, in 1988, four medals were stripped at the Seoul Games. One of them was Canadian Ben Johnson, who won the 100 meters in a much-hyped matchup with Carl Lewis. In doing so, he set a new world record of 9.79 seconds. Then he tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. Ljungqvist had just joined the IOC Medical Commission and was head of doping control for the case.

“The whole world’s attention was on who would win, him or Carl Lewis,” Ljungqvist said. “It was a big thing. When this came, then the sports leadership around the world understood that this cannot go on, that competitive sport was in danger.”

Finally, Ljungqvist said, he and his fellow administrators felt like they had support from the public, governments, and the IOC itself. It helped that the Cold War was fading and in a few years the Soviet Union would disband and the Berlin Wall come down.

“The atmosphere changed from having been very silent or even actually working against us, which we felt in the air throughout the 1970s and ’80s,” he explained. “It changed completely – we got good recognition of what we were doing, and we got increased support through the 1990s.”

Emergence of WADA

Anti-doping efforts were made easier, then, in the 1990s, and the IOC began to catch larger numbers of athletes at the Games. By 2000, officials banned 13 athletes from a single Games and rescinded twelve medals, including five by U.S. sprinter Marion Jones.

And at about that time, the IOC Medical Commission concluded their duties and handed responsibility off to the newly-created WADA, a 50-50 venture between the IOC and national governments. The commission still oversees doping tests at the Olympics themselves, but in 1999, WADA took over the supervision of testing the rest of the time.

“WADA was created as a joint venture between the governments around the world and Olympic, international sport,” Ljungqvist said. “Then it became a clear message: this is unacceptable both from a political point of view and a sports point of view. The establishment on both sides were clear that doping was unacceptable.”

In 2003, Ljungqvist took over for de Merode as head of the Medical Commission, and set about reorganizing it. One division of the current commission is dedicated to drug testing at the Games, which now happen every two years (winter and summer offset) rather than every four as in the 1980s and earlier. The other division is dedicated to health and safety, including research and managing health care services at the Games.

But Ljungqvist still does plenty of doping work. He is coming to the end of a six-year term as WADA vice president, and so has had a front-row seat to the organization’s rise.

“With the new WADA Code, one of the big issues from the start was the different rules for different sports and different countries,” he said. “It was chaotic. Cases ended up in tribunals around the world, civil courts, it was terrible. But against all odds, WADA managed, supported by the IOC, to create a uniform set of rules for anti-doping.”

In fact, it was the IOC’s clout that forced nations and sports to adhere to the WADA code. The IOC stated that those federations who did not sign the code would be unable to compete at the 2004 Games in Athens and, said Ljungqvist, it came down to the wire, with FIFA (the soccer federation) literally signing on at the deadline. But it was a strong display by the IOC, which had been so weak a few decades earlier.

In another pleasant surprise, the national governments scorned politics as well.

“The governments have managed to agree upon a formula in which they contribute in different amounts,” Ljungqvist said. “It is fantastic that in a few years they did it.”

Remaining Hurdles

Still, though, there are challenges, both for the IOC and WADA. One is funding and research, since the organizations need to keep up with emerging doping methods and try to come up with tests to detect new drugs.

“People believe that the IOC is a very rich body, it is only partially true,” Ljungqvist explained. “They’re giving the money back to the organizing committees. … Also according to a formula there is money going back to the national Olympic committees, to international federations, to cover administrative costs. And the philosophy of the IOC there is to have the amount of money in reserve, so that the IOC can survive as an organization should the Olympic Games for one reason or another be cancelled. It is all either given out, or reserved for particular purposes.”

In general, science is not one of those purposes.

“I remember when I came into the IOC in 1994, I found to my surprise that there was no budget for research,” Ljungqvist continued. “This was incredible to me: this rich body and no funding for research! In particular since doping was such a hot issue… Everything was already locked into a system of formulas, so there was nobody ready to give their money away for research. Only when WADA was created did the IOC recommend that a particular percentage of the WADA budget should go to research.”

Still, WADA’s entire budget is about $25 million, with about a fifth of that going to research. By comparison, the U.S. Olympic Committee had revenues totaling $127 million for the year ending December 31, 2011 – and that was a year without Olympic broadcasting revenue.

“It is a little frustrating when you see people playing golf or tennis or whatever and get millions of dollars – and we are working for them,” Ljungqvist said. “Anti-doping is for them, and for their protection. There are so many millions of dollars out there in sport, at least a fraction should find its way – but that’s the way it is.”

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