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The Big Caracas Drug Bust

By Janice Castro,

A tough chemical test disqualifies 14 athletes
Time Magazine, Monday, Sep. 05, 1983

Jeff Michels, 21, is unquestionably America's finest amateur weightlifter, but he will not be competing in next year's Olympics. Last week the Chicago athlete had to give back three gold medals he won at the Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, after the biggest drug bust in the history of international amateur sporting competition. In all, nine medalists and five additional athletes from the U.S., Canada, Cuba and other nations were disqualified because tests showed that they used anabolic steroid drugs or ephedrine stimulants, which are banned by the International Olympic Committee. After the test results, Michels was also automatically suspended for one year by the United States Weightlifting Federation, making him ineligible for the Los Angeles Games. The prospect of being caught out by the chemical tests apparently so frightened a dozen other American athletes that they skipped their events and left Caracas the morning after the news broke of Michels' fate.

Since the first rules prohibiting some stimulants and tranquilizers were instituted by the IOC in 1967, urinalysis checks have sent athletes home in shame from time to time.

But until now, testing procedures were generally so haphazard and unsophisticated that many athletes and their trainers were willing to risk detection for the chance to shave an extra tenth of a second on a sprint or to lift a kilo more than a pumped-up hulk who had obviously been popping something.

Most commonly that something is an anabolic steroid. Many athletes believe that these compounds, which can be derived from the male hormone testosterone or produced synthetically, speed the development of muscle tissue, increase aggressiveness and promote strength. Prescribed in hospitals to promote weight gain among burn victims, surgical patients and others, steroids have long been the training drug of choice for body builders, football players and weightlifters. Injected or swallowed in pill form, the drug does help add weight, but there is no conclusive medical proof that it increases strength. The evidence is mounting, however, that steroids' often irreversible side effects include kidney, liver and heart failure, and increased vulnerability to cancer. Adolescent users can suffer crippling bone stunting and arrested sexual development. In women, steroids can lead to facial hair and deeper voices. In men, there is a danger of sterility or impotence. "Male athletes who use it take the chance of becoming eunuchs," says Dr. Robert Dugal, who runs a Montreal drug-testing lab.

Even though such warnings are printed on steroid packaging, some gyms and coaches willingly offer the services of a friendly pharmacist to interested players. Many say they take the drugs to keep up with East bloc competitors, who are widely believed to be using steroids. The user athletes have been getting advice on how to beat the occasional test at meets. Explains Dr. Anthony Daly, medical director for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee: "They used to feel safe if they stopped taking steroids two to three weeks before the test." Not after last week.

The urinalysis test awaiting drug users at the Pan Am Games was like nothing they had encountered in past years.

The basic test has been employed before, but it has been refined with new computer software. The gas chromatograph mass spectrometer utilized in Caracas is capable of detecting substances in concentrations as small as one part per billion and can pick up traces of compounds taken as much as six months earlier. Ten Americans had requested private pretesting at Caracas, and even though eight of them showed traces of drugs, they competed and risked the official test. Oddly enough, Michels passed the first, confidential screening, reportedly because it was not as complete as the urinalysis conducted later. Michels reportedly told fellow athletes that the technicians awed him by naming the date in April when he had last used steroids and by saying they could also pinpoint the exact dosage. The twelve athletes who fled before facing the test insist that they are not steroid users, but some said that they were worried about urinalysis turning up other, more innocuous substances like caffeine, which are also on the IOC's list of more than 300 banned drugs.

Whatever they and other athletes may have been using, the shock waves of last week ought to be a powerful stimulant for abstinence.

Like Michels, the two Canadian and two Cuban weightlifters caught in Caracas will be banned from the Olympics by their national federa- tions. The U.S. Olympic Commit tee announced last week that spot checks of Americans will be done at all major competitions from now on. And in Los Angeles, says Dr. Daly, "we will have at least equal and perhaps better equipment than was used in Caracas. The message will be: There is no way to beat the system.' " - By Janice Castro. Reported by Steven Holmes/Los Angeles

With reporting by Steven Holmes/Los Angeles

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