The Battle Rages On

By Razak Hj. Lajis
The Sun, August 10, 1996

THE OLYMPIC GAMES ENDED A FEW days ago. For the past two weeks, sports fans were drawn to Atlanta where the world's most celebrated sporting event was held. The Atlanta Games was one of the most successful ever held. Transportation problems, disruption of the computer system and even a fatal bomb blast failed to dampen the Olympic spirit.

Since the inception of the modern Olympics a 100 years ago, competing athletes in various fields have always lived up to the spirit of citus, altius, fortius in their struggle for fame and glory. The Games were always full of surprises, high-tension drama, ecstasy in victory and agony indefeat.

The Atlanta Olympics was no different. The scorching run by Michael Johnson in which he rewrote the world record in the 200m event and the near perfect performance by the Korean archers were testimony to that.

In light of this, the discovery of a new controversial stimulant cum masking agent - bromantan - was also not totally unexpected. While Johnson's triumphant run proplled sprinting into another dimension achievable by man, bromantan created another history for drug abuse in sports. It was among the latest mishaps to hit the trouble-plagued Atlanta Games and would definitely draw a new cloud of suspicion to sports.

After studying reports from other major sporting events. Olympic officials found that athletes might have been using the drug to hide traces of steroids. Although classified as a stimulant, bromantan is believed to be capable of hiding the abuse of more serious drugs such as steroids and other related substances.

A number of athletes have been associated with the use of bromantan in their bid for success. It was reported that Russian athletes were among the hardest hit by this controversial drug. Some of them have been stripped of their medals while others are waiting agonisingly for their test results.

Three Russian athletes, one Lithuanian cyclist and two sports officials were banned from the Atlanta Games for using bromantan. Two Russian athletes were stripped of their bronze medals after testing positive for bromantan.

As a stimulant, it is generally accepted that bromantan may enhance athletic performance by allowing athletes to feel more alert and combat fatigue brought on by prolonged exertion. Stimulants also generate a feeling of well-being, aggression and self-confidence.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has described the effect of bromantan as equivalent to that of mesocarb.

Mesocarb is known to possess anti-depressant and anti-psychotic properties and is already in the list of banned drugs. The IOC has also described bromantan as a dangerous cocktail of steroids, stimulants and masking agents.

According to an Olympic official, bromantan was first manufactured by the Russian army to increase their soldiers' physical endurance during long and strenuous military exercises. Then Russian athletes got hold for it. It was reported that those who were on bromantan could compete to their maximum capacity without feeling exhausted.

It was alleged that the drug was abused for years by athletes of the former Soviet Union. Russian officials were quoted as saying that Soviet athletes used bromantan at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Athletes from other fields have been cheating with bromantan for at least two years. One case was reported at the World Cup Cross Country race held in 1994 while seven other cases were detected at a major Nordic skiing championship last year. Most of the sportsmen and sportswomen involved came from Russia.

As many as 20 cases of bromantan abuse have been reported over the past two years. But since it was not clearly classified, it was difficult to convict the abusers. It was not until recently that scientist were able to identify the substance and classify it as a banned performance-enhancing stimulant.

Just a few days before the Games started, the medical commission head of the IOC warned that it might not be possible to detect bromantan. However, with the aid of a Canadian laboratory, they managed to do it.

At the Atlanta Olympics, many sports officials expressed surprise that very few athletes were caught using other types of performance-enhancing drugs. For the record, traces of painkillers were found in a long-distance runner while another was barred from competing after testing positive for steroids. Apart from these two isolated cases, the problem of drug abuse seemed well-contained.

The use of sophisticated equipment and techniques to detect banned drugs appeared tom have indered athletes and their coaches from using them. As such, one is tempted to think that sports has successfully found a new chapter where drugs no longer play a major role.

However, scepticism lingers on. Many still believe that competitors are cheating their way to glory. With the enormous amount of money being thrown into sports, this is hardly surprising. Even before the Olympics became commercialised, success in sports has always been known to generate monetary rewards. Thus, people will find it difficult to shy away from using drugs. One could not help but be sceptical about the small number of the drug abuse cases detected, especially when bromantan is available in the market.

The rewards of winning always surpass the questions of ethnic and moral obligations. Those involved in this "lucrative" bussiness will relentlessly devise various methods to avoid detection. They can do so in a number of ways.

They can ask athletes concerned to stop using the drug for a certain period of time before the sporting event so that there will be detectable substance in the urine. The appropriate time for urine sample collection is also calculated so that no traces of the drug will be detected upon testing. This itself involves extensive knowledge of the pharmacokinetic properties of the drug used. Normally a good number of professionals are involved in this well-designed programme.

Also, extensive studies will be carried out to find compounds which will disrupt the ability of analytical laboratories to detect banned drugs. The interfering substance or drug may have to be taken out or added to the sample to render detection invalid.

As far as steroids are concerned, they can be selected from many hundreds of steroids available in the market throughout the world. A large number of these drugs are not approved for the marketing and are used illicitly in some countries. It will therefore be a great challenge to analytical laboratories to equip themselves well to detect these compounds.

Masking agents are not new in sports. Diuretics are amonf well-known drugs used as a masking agent. They are banned because they may be used to promote urinary excretion of a banned substance. If their use is allowed, many cases of drug abuse will go undetected.

Diuretics are popular among boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters as these substances can also be employed for rapid weight loss. By tipping the balance to their side, they will be allowed to compete in a lower weight category. A few hours later - possibly during competition - they regain their normal weight and sterngth and therefore have a clear weight advantage over their opponents.

Probenecid and some other compounds such as allopurinol and sulfinpyrazone may also be used as masking agents. Unlike bromantan where the exact masking mechanism is still unknown, probenecid blocks the urinary excretion of anabolic steroids in much the same way that is delays penicillin elimination.

The use of probenecid was recognised before the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis. An undisclosed number of urine samples were found to contain the drug. Later in the same year, it was added to the list of substances banned by the IOC.

The use of peformance-enhancing drugs by athletes has become a matter of public interest and debate. The decision to prohibit their use is a wise approach. But the problem has to be addressed with strong determination and perseverance.

Drug use in sports may be divided into two types. One is the believe that the user will gain an unfair advantage by taking the drug and the other is the concern that the drug may bring harmful effects to the user.

Although some drugs are used therapeutically, indiscriminate and improper use of drugs create a potential risk to harmful effects. If used within the recommended therapeutic dose levels under the supervision of qualified personnel, the side-effects are usually under control and reversible.

It is also important the emphasise the nature of drugs made available to athletes. Unless they are given under professional supervision, it is most likely the drugs used are inferior in quality. If these drugs are manufactured by clandestine laboratories where the facilities for quality control are almost absent, their potential to cause harm is significantly greater. They are of unknown potency, purity and even composition.

The traditional and conventional method of controlling drug abuse has been to classify specific compounds as illegal. A simple supply-reduction model may be a practical approach.

In order to check this unhealthy practice, any ban on sale, possession and use of these substances must be strictly enforced.

Another possible remedy is through the reclassification of certain drugs based on their health risk and potential for addiction. By restricting the use of these substances, some harmful effects may be avoided.

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