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Spring 2004
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Spring 2004
Leveling the Playing Field
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The discovery rocked the sports world. The Food and Drug Administration promptly declared THG an illegal substance. Using the UCLA-created test, international sports organizations re-examined hundreds of urine samples still in storage. Four NFL players, four U.S. track-and-field athletes and one British sprinter tested positive for the drug. In February, the top executives at the Bay Area nutritional-supplements lab suspected of distributing THG along with a track coach and the personal trainer of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds pleaded innocent to charges in a 42-count federal indictment that they illegally supplied performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of athletes. They could face prison terms as well as thousands of dollars in fines if convicted.

There is tremendous variation in how the governing bodies of each sport handle positive tests. The IOC imposes a two-year ban on anyone caught using steroids, so the track athletes who tested positive for THG will be excluded from participating in this summer's Olympic Games. Britain has gone further; UK Athletics, the British track-and-field federation, banned sprinter Dwain Chambers for life from participating in the Olympics after it was determined he had taken THG. And retesting of specimens means champions cannot consider themselves home free if they evade detection the first time around. Some athletes and their lawyers try to fight these penalties by contesting the results.

But the ramifications of Catlin's breakthrough extend beyond sanctions. They threaten the very credibility of athletic achievement. Now, sports feats are tainted by the specter of athletes using undiscovered substances to make themselves stronger and faster, simultaneously risking their health and cheating their competitors and fans. The seeming ubiquity of drug use may also entice millions of adolescent athletes, influenced by the behavior of their sports idols, to conclude that drugs are a necessary element of competition. President Bush, in his January State of the Union address, went so far as to call for a halt to the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

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