Doping Tests Loaded Against Athletes, Contends US Lawyer

by Gopalan on Jul 29 2008 9:31 AM

As Beijing Olympics is nearing and the world of sports is bracing itself for more doping scams to burst out, there are some who assert the system is loaded against athletes.

Howard Jacobs, a prominent US lawyer, seems to believe that many are unfairly accused of cheating. And once held guilty, it stays. Like being branded.

The crusade of US cyclist Floyd Landis has made headlines in recent days. He won the 2006 Tour de France with a come-from-behind performance in a late stage of the race. But four days later, word emerged that he had tested positive for testosterone doping. It all culminated in a two year suspension from the competition.

But Landis has been maintaining his innocence, even after losing every appeal. And Jacobs is at his side, presenting some seemingly convincing arguments, latching on to technical lapses.

He failed, of course, but his reputation as a resolute defender of ‘helpless’ athletes has grown.  Most big guns like Marion Jones seem to turn to him instinctively, and he manages to put up an impressive case. That the anti-doping agencies are not impressed is a different story altogether.

The system set up to stem drug use in sports is a complex nexus of international law and athletic values that is carried out by an alphabet-soup of antidoping agencies worldwide. It has its own built-in set of checks and balances. The only problem is, one person’s check doesn’t always meet another person’s sense of balance.

The genesis of much of the antidoping movement was an egregious scandal surrounding the Tour de France in 1998, when one team was caught with a carload of banned drugs. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), already plagued with rumors of drug use in many sports, was galvanized to act. Beginning the next year, numerous policing agencies bubbled up throughout the sporting world – most notably the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

A joint venture between governments and sporting entities, WADA spent four years fashioning a global antidoping code. All 202 countries in the Olympic movement and 570 sports organizations have signed on. Each year, the agency updates a list of banned substances.

Jacobs told Christa Case Bryantof the Christian Science  Monitor that WADA strictures were too inflexible. They only ensnare the athletes who aren’t trying to cheat, he argues and cites the case of Zach Lund. Going into the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, Lund was the world’s top skeleton racer – one of those people who inexplicably launches himself head-first down an icy track on a sled at 80 m.p.h.

He had tested positive for a drug present in medicine he took to fight baldness, banned the year before because it can mask steroids. Lund, who had declared the drug on all his forms for years, was granted a reprieve from USADA and cleared for the Olympics. But WADA appealed the decision, and the case went to the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Hours before the opening ceremony, Lund was kicked out of the Games – even though the CAS arbitrators agreed he had no intention of using illegal drugs. They said it was his responsibility to comply with WADA’s list of banned drugs.

Jacobs, Lund’s lawyer in the case, estimates that two-thirds of the nearly 50 athletes he’s represented have inadvertently taken a banned substance, such as Ritalin – a prescription drug that athletes with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) can take if they fill out the right paperwork, which they often don’t. “They’re not trying to cheat,” he says. “But they get caught up in the system, and they end up getting these incredibly long suspensions.”

Ous Mellouli, a Tunisian swimmer who tested positive for amphetamines in 2006, is undoubtedly glad about that. With the help of Jacobs, who attributes the test results to taking a friend’s ADD medicine to study for a test, the usual two-year ban was reduced, enabling him to go to Beijing as a medal favorite.

Despairing that while it is all rigged against unwary athletes, Jacobs expressed satisfaction over Mellouli’s case. He said, “Occasionally,” says Jacobs, “you get a result like that that makes you realize it’s worth it.”

Travis Tygart, head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), defends antidoping arbitration as a balance between efficiency and truth, designed to prevent “fishing expeditions” – defense lawyers drawing out hearings at great expense. “I have a lot of respect for Howard. He’s a fierce advocate,” says Tygart, who, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, competed on the same swim team as Jacobs. “His job is just entirely different – using smoke and mirrors to get athletes off, whereas ours is a search for the truth to protect clean athletes.”