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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Drugs in sport - could it possibly be bigger than we thought?

In a companion post to this article, we discussed three MAJOR doping stories of the last week, and how we seem apathetic to them. First, Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour title, then Michael Rasmussen returned a "non-negative" result during the 2007 Tour, and then perhaps the biggest sports drug bust in history went down in the USA. Yet it seems to be business as usual. In this post, we take a closer look at this huge drug bust, named Operation Raw Deal, and what it means for doping control in sport.

Operation Raw Deal exposed - a summary of the bust

Operation Raw Deal, a campaign run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is the story that should be sending shivers down our spines. Just look at the numbers again:

  • 124 arrests
  • 56 labs shut down across 27 states
  • $6.5million worth of steriods
  • 240 kg (530 lbs) of raw steroid powder!
Most of the raids took place in "quiet, suburban neighbourhoods, with reports of DEA agents "knocking down doors in suburban cul-de-sacs and pushing their way into basements and kitchens". According to this report from ESPN:

"The owners weren't exactly secretive. One Long Island man had 800,000 doses of raw steroid powder stacked in plain view in his garage, right next to his shiny new Corvette; nearby, a locker housed empty vials and printed address labels for thousands of clients throughout the country. An electrician who was running another lab, in New Jersey, had stashed 40,000 doses in his basement, along with the tub and centrifuge he used to turn the powder into street-ready drugs. In a third raid, on a Midwestern home, the living room floor was so thick with steroid powder that agents left footprints behind."
This is absolutely extra-ordinary, and has far reaching implications for doping control in sport, because it is a symptom of a much, much bigger problem and illustrates just how easy it might be to get away with the manufacture and distribution of drugs.

Tracing doping to its source - all roads seem to lead to China

What should be most concerning about this is the ease with which the products are obtained and manufactured. For a frightening illustration of how easy it is to obtain steroids and Human Growth Hormone, check out this story, also from ESPN.

The journalist goes over to China, attending a "Convention on Pharmaceutical Ingredients". Armed with nothing more than a 'shopping list' of ingredients (all banned), he meets many people who are only too willing to offer him steroids and growth hormone for the right price. Apparently, you can buy 1kg of testosterone for the bargain price of $266! That becomes 10,000 single doses, which can be sold at $12.50, according to the article. Do the math on that one - buy at $266, and sell for $125,000! I wonder how many Corvettes one could afford from a year of dealing in that kind of industry!

As for getting the drugs from China into the USA (or any other country, for that matter), that's no problem. A quote from the article: "Asked if shipping to the U.S. is a problem, she replies, "Is Federal Express okay? We do it for our other American clients."" All they do is change the name on the labels...growth hormone is called "watermelon extract" in one such story!

Of course, it's illegal for the Chinese to sell steroids in this way, but when your salary in China is only $230 per month, a kilogram of testosterone here and there does not go unnoticed, or unsold! Human growth hormone is even more lucrative...world wide sales are reported at $600 million, of which $480 million are said to originate in China!

Implications of Operation Raw Deal - do drug tests even mean anything today?

If an electrician, a suburban white-collar worker, can set up a laboratory and a distribution network for steroids, imagine what is possible with some management and financial backing.

Truth is, you don't have to imagine anything. Because in 2003, stories began to emerge of a massive underground steroid operation which was to become known as the BALCO affair. To cut a long story short, Victor Conte, a small-time supplement dealer for many years, enlisted the help of an organic chemist, Patrick Arnold, and set about creating products that would have the same effect as steroids but would be undetectable. The result? "The Clear", which is the name given to tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), an undetectable steroid developed by Arnold, and used by athletes including Dwain Chambers, Kelli White and Barry Bonds. Had it not been for a coaching rivalry and a secret tip-off that led to the discovery and development of a test for THG, athletes would still be using it today.

This story illustrates what a relatively 'small-time' businessman, with the right connections and the right "vision" can achieve. What Operation Raw Deal shows us is that this phenomenon - underground labs, creation of undetectable steroids - is more common that we thought. Even a suburban white collar worker now has this "vision" in his grasp.

It would be naive to think that Victor Conte and Patrick Arnold are the only people capable of creating a drug that evades detection. Operation Raw Deal shut down 56 underground steroid labs - any one of these labs could have achieved the same thing! Imagine 56 labs all producing undetectable steroids - that adds up to a minimum of 56 UNDETECTABLE STEROIDS on the US market alone, from suburban homes. Now add China, the professional supplement industry, and the rest of the world - sport will never be the same.

"There will be 100 drugs that are undetectable by the Beijing Olympic Games"

This quote (I forget who it was who said it, it may have been at a conference I attended) could easily be dismissed as hyperbole. But Operation Raw Deal makes us sit up and take notice. The same article from ESPN makes mention of a "sting" operation set up to see whether drugs could be obtained that were undetectable. The findings are frightening. Having set up a supplement company, the journalist orders products that are sold to him on the premise that they work and are undetectable. Sure enough, he has them shipped to his address from a company based in the USA, and has them tested for the 11 known classes of steroids. The result - negative.

He then consults with Don Catlin, a renowned expert in the fight against doping. Here, a different picture, because Catlin's deeper analysis showed very definite evidence of anabolic steroids in the sample. In Catlin's own words:
"This wasn't done by someone with a high school degree," Catlin concluded. "Whoever made it knew what he was doing." An industry source to whom the label was shown went even further: "No one is making this stuff in the U.S. The only place you can get it is China."
Suddenly, 100 undetectable drugs is not impossible. There are already three of four - even blood doping, if done properly, would be counted in this group. But one should shudder at the thought of hundreds, if not thousands of labs across the USA, China and the rest of the world, all working at designing drugs that cannot be detected. And then sticking a label on them to say they are "watermelon extract", sending them to the rest of the world, where they find their way to athletes of all levels, who rest comfortably, knowing they will not get caught because the testers and administrators are blind men chasing them in the dark.

The next time an athlete stands up and says "I have never tested postive", you have to wonder - is he innocent, or is he just gloating about the fact that he's full of steroids, but you'll never find out?



Rob said...

I think so.

I mean, in certain sports Athletes truly believe that if they don't dope, they're at a disadvantage. They've worked their arses off for years only to find (whether they are right or wrong) that they won't make it clean. What then?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Rob

Thanks for the comment. Agreed. The dilemma faced by pro athletes is massive. I often wonder how I would respond, and am then grateful I'm not in that compromised position!

But it must be incredibly disheartening, and I wonder if that sense of embitterment will ultimately be what drives the purging of the sport? In cycling, for example, it seems that many riders are now so fed-up with the state of affairs that they threaten the "witch trial" equivalent of sport with regards to dope cheats.

Bottom line though - look at the money involved and ask who would want to be a tester when the dealers (and athletes) are cashing in?

Thanks again for your time!