Even for a clean competitor, doping becomes constant test

  • One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.

    Michael Phelps runs down a mental checklist before he leaves for a competition site.

    He packs credentials, goggles, his favorite rap CD, an assortment of high-performance swimsuits and one warning.

    Don't drink the water - or any liquid, for that matter - if you're unsure of its origin.

    That order comes from his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bob Bowman. If you think he is being paranoid, go back a decade, when a Tonya Harding-led confederacy of dunces tried to whack Nancy Kerrigan and her knee out of the Olympic figure skating picture.

    The fastest all-around swimmer ever, Phelps should be prominent at the 2004 Olympics, a serious threat to match the record seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972. Even if Bowman didn't consider the possibility that someone could spike Phelps' drink with a banned substance and sabotage his bid at Olympic history, that quest is fraught with unseen dangers on the doping front.

    NFL players, bobsledders and swimmers alike have argued that their steroid suspensions were caused by tainted nutritional supplements. Could last night's New York strip have come from a steer that was fed a growth hormone banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency? Then there is the cynicism that accompanies any groundbreaking performance.

    As Phelps, 18, has gathered world records, riches and acclaim, he has sacrificed his privacy and Bowman some peace of mind.

    Phelps submitted to drug testing 10 times in an 18-day span last summer, at the world championships and Summer Nationals. Elite Olympic athletes are also subject to random out-of-competition testing. A couple from Virginia routinely arrives at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center on short notice, collecting urine for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency or perhaps blood for WADA or FINA, which runs international swimming.

    In essence, Olympic athletes announce their retirement when they stop notifying anti-doping authorities where they are going to be and when they are going to be there.

    Samples are tested for more than 100 banned substances at the USADA lab at UCLA or a WADA lab in Montreal. Phelps hands his result receipts to his mother, who keeps them in a file at their Rodgers Forge home.

    Measured approach

    In an era in which there are more chemists than cops, when cheaters can experiment with designer steroids and brave new world measures that aren't on testing's radar, what do all of those negative results mean?

    "I heard it through the grapevine that my name was mentioned," Lenny Krayzelburg said of the accusatory whispers that followed his being the only American male swimmer to win two individual events at the 2000 Olympics. "What can you do? You can't dwell on that, and you can't do anything about it. I can bring you all of my test results, but you know that people have cheated the system before."

    Baseball and Barry Bonds remain topic A on America's doping front. USA Track and Field still hasn't resolved a cover-up at the 2000 Olympics, and swimming has also had its place on the cutting edge of sports pharmacology.

    Last July, Phelps became only the second swimmer to set world records in different events in the same day. Kornelia Ender had been the first, at the 1976 Olympics. She was part of an East German doping conspiracy that led to catastrophic health problems and a protracted court case that resulted in 185 ex-athletes winning an average payout of $12,000 from the German government.

    In the early 1990s, Chinese women in bulk numbers began to rewrite the records in distance running and swimming. Phelps' sister Whitney competed at the 1994 world swimming championships, where officials and coaches from 18 countries signed a position paper raising the specter of banned substances after China won 75 percent of the gold medals.

    Chastened, China claimed one gold at the 1996 Olympics, where innuendo centered on Irishwoman Michelle Smith, who won three individual gold medals. Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands did the same in 2000 and faced similar suspicion from the swim community. Her case illustrates the slippery slope of guilt by association.

    De Bruijn's career took off after she began to train with Paul Bergen in 1997 in Oregon. In the early 1990s, Bergen's coaching students included Bowman.

    "When people point fingers at an athlete, they point fingers at you [the coach]," said Bergen, who developed America's greatest female swimmer, Tracy Caulkins. "Tracy came up in the '70s, when all the accusations about the Germans were floating around. What are you going to do about it? Get in the weight room and make a difference or whine and get beat?

    "Whatever anyone can do in the short term with needles, you can beat long term in the weight room."

    Looking for clues

    Smith and de Bruijn were in their mid-20s when they made substantial improvement. Female athletes derive greater benefit from some banned substances than men and face greater scrutiny when they make breakthroughs late in their careers.

    Krayzelburg, 28, has one of the most impressive physiques ever seen on a pool deck. He began lifting weights at the age of 9, at an army sports club in Russia. Phelps was 5 when he began swimming. National age-group records that he set in 1996 still stand, and his march through the record book has been precocious and steady.

    His father is a retired Maryland state trooper and his mother spent 23 years teaching home economics, where she lectured middle school students about health and nutrition.

    "I'm always going to do things the right way," said Phelps, who was asked about studies that show a majority of athletes would use banned substances if they guaranteed victory but also a shorter life span. "It's their body, and they know what they're doing. They're choosing that. Why do people smoke, knowing that it's harmful?"

    Doing everything right does not provide a complete escape from suspicion.

    "Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, as sure as I can be, none of those people are doing anything close to illegal," said Richard Quick, the Stanford swim coach, who has been on the U.S. Olympic staff five times, "but every great athlete has a little dark cloud over him, because of the highly publicized illegal athletes. It's impossible in today's culture to escape that, but I'm convinced that our sport is extremely clean."

    Bowman shrugs at the prospect of elite athletes being painted with a broad brush, saying "the clean people don't have anything to worry about," but there are concerns nonetheless.

    Phelps weighed about 165 pounds when he went to the 2000 Olympics. He would like to maintain 200 through what figures to be a long, hot summer. For several years, Phelps took Endurox, a nutritional supplement that is the official drink of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America, but not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Phelps recently began instead taking Ensure, an FDA-approved supplement.

    Was the switch made because USADA issues a warning about contaminated supplements?

    "Michael was using that supplement for every [drug] test he's ever had," Bowman said. "I know that's anecdotal evidence, and I know that taking supplements requires some faith. You could take this to the nth degree. It could become a 24-hour obsession with everything that he puts in his mouth. For us to obsess on that takes the joy out of the process. I'm not going to give that up."

    Kids are in mix, too

    The American Swim Coaches Association claims a leadership role at the front of the anti-doping movement, and acknowledges that stance is not entirely altruistic. If it doesn't run a clean ship, the association runs the risk of losing its clientele. Though there is little direct link between Bonds and Little League Baseball, Phelps competes in meets that include under-10 races.

    The World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in 1999, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency just after the 2000 Olympics, with the purpose of taking testing out of the hands of international and national bodies that oversee particular sports. They have no power over lucrative ventures such as European soccer and America's pro leagues, although NBA players will be subject to testing in Athens, Greece.

    Testing constantly gains in accuracy and comprehension, but the landscape changes daily.

    Tetrahydrogestrinone, a designer steroid, was discovered by anti-doping agencies last summer, when the BALCO case broke. After a test to detect THG was developed, FINA retested all 312 urine samples it collected at last summer's world championships.

    Gene doping on horizon

    Stimulants boost an athlete's energy. Steroids increase mass. Erythropoietin, EPO, which aids the ability to produce oxygen, was big with endurance athletes, but tighter testing has them experimenting with other means of blood doping. Assorted growth hormones are also banned, but those substances are child's play compared to what looms on the horizon.

    "Ten years from now, the topic is going to be genetic enhancement," said one industry source who asked not to be identified. "It's already here. There are athletes who have already been genetically manipulated."

    Two days ago, WADA hosted a workshop in the Netherlands. The topic was gene doping.

    Citius, altius, fortius - swifter, higher, stronger, the Olympic motto - indeed.

    "It's the same old thing," Bowman said. "Today's generals are fighting the last war. While we're worrying about solving a problem that has been going on a long time, a new one is taking shape before we can even think about it."

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