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Questions surround validity of drug testing at Olympics

Two years ago in Seoul, South Korea, the Olympics suffered through probably its biggest drug scandal when Ben Johnson of Canada lost his gold medal after testing positive for an anabolic steroid. Rumors were rife in the Olympic village that other big-time athletes had also tested positive, but none of those rumors was verified.

Still, word of another potential scandal had quietly reached the International Olympic Committee's medical commission in Seoul.

It involved Stacey Augmon.

Augmon, a guard for the U.S. basketball team, had been found to have a level of testosterone slightly above the IOC limit, the Los Angeles Times has learned. A positive result could have disqualified the U.S. team.

U.S. Olympic Committee doctors convinced the commission that Augmon, a Nevada-Las Vegas player, was not using drugs to improve his performance. Instead, they argued, he was a rare individual who naturally produces a high level of testosterone, the male sex hormone. Augmon would not comment on the tests.

His test result was dismissed without becoming public because only confirmed positives are announced. Augmon continued to play, and the United States won a bronze medal.

Augmon's case has not died quietly, however.

It casts lingering doubt on the validity of testing for naturally produced hormones and the IOC's process by which tests are implemented.

Members of the IOC medical commission recently acknowledged that the test used for testosterone in the last two Olympics needs modifications so that no athlete will be falsely accused of chemically enhancing his or her performance.

Testosterone and its synthetic derivatives, anabolic steroids, increase protein synthesis, and can increase lean muscle mass with training.

IOC doctors said they are trying to improve the testing methods to ensure fairness and accuracy.

Their problem is compounded because there is no test differentiating between the body's testosterone and testosterone that is added. It all has the same chemical makeup. A screening test that can identify a forbidden anabolic steroid is unable to detect added testosterone.

Three other U.S. athletes have encountered situations similar to Augmon's:

Corey Millen, now playing for the New York Rangers, served an 18-month suspension ordered by the International Hockey Federation after testing positive in 1986.

Baaron Pittinger, president of USA Hockey, said the Americans will soon appeal the suspension to clear Millen's name.

Augie Wolf, a shot putter, and Billy Olson, a pole vaulter, successfully defended themselves after testing positive at the 1989 U.S. indoor national championships.

Each was able to cast a reasonable doubt as to the accuracy of his test in an appeal before The Athletics Congress' review panels. The positive results were overturned.

Manfred Donike, a professor in Cologne, Germany, developed the complex process that is used to determine abnormal testosterone levels.

Instead of a screening test, the IOC and other amateur sports organizations adopted a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, a biologically inactive steroid found in the testes and ovaries.

What Donike and other IOC officials failed to realize at the time, however, was that some people naturally produce higher levels.

The IOC medical commission will discuss the testosterone issue when it meets in February at Albertville, France.

On the agenda will be a discussion of steroid profiling as a way to further examine potential testosterone positives, Donike said.