1998 will be remembered as the year things went wild on the drug front. Doping, whether anyone liked it or not, was the most talked-about subject in sport, and it is unlikely to let up in the early months of the New Year.
The year in review shows a sad state of affairs. Things got off to a bad start in Perth last January when five Chinese swimmers and one coach were sent home from the World Swimming Championships. The discovery by Australian Customs agents of human growth hormone in one of the swimmer's bags was followed by the positive tests, four days later, of four other swimmers for the masking agent triamterene.
Ireland's triple Olympic swimming gold medallist Michelle Smith de Bruin was slapped with a four-year ban from FINA after a urine sample she provided in January showed evidence of tampering.
In other sports the same thing was happening. Track and field stars Randy Barnes and Dennis Mitchell were among those nabbed for drug cheating. (Mitchell has since been cleared by U.S. Track and Field and his suspension is under review.) All hell broke loose in July as cycling's renowned Tour de France fell apart when the members of the Festina team were expelled after French border police discovered a cache of the performance-enhancing drug erythropoetin (EPO) in the trunk of their masseur's car.
Baseball player Mark Mcguire's admission that the testosterone precursor androstenedione powered him to his record-breaking 70-home-run streak pushed sales of the product over the moon in the United States. Germany's adored long distance runner Uta Pippig was caught in the crossfire after drug tests showed elevated testosterone levels.
And Italian soccer was shattered when it came out that the country's IOC-accredited lab, Acqua Acetosa, was covering up players' positive drug tests. The president of the Italian Olympic Committee and many other officials were forced to resign as the scandal unfolded, and investigations there are on-going. It has been estimated that some 700 sports doctors have been helping athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs in Italy.
German swimmers Chris-Carol Bremer and Mark Warnecke came forward in October to criticize their federation's reticence to aggressively prevent drug use; they maintained that there is widespread doping "to the limit" of the legal testosterone level of 6. And finally, on December 30, FINA announced a Lithuanian swimmer tested positive for metandienone metabolite and received a four-year suspension.
So what is one more? That was the question in the minds of the public that, as the headlines churned out almost without pause, found itself locked in a crisis of confidence in international sport. From swimming to tennis to badminton, no arena seemed clean or safe anymore. Prompted by events in the Tour de France, the International Olympic Committee announced its plans to hold the first world conference on doping in sport early this year. France's Minister for Youth and Sport, Marie-Georges Buffet, presented a bill for a tighter anti-doping law to the French National Assembly. The bill was passed, putting sports doctors and federations under legal pressure to report even the suspicion of a doping infraction. Not taking the summer's events lightly, the French government approved heavy fines and up to seven years in prison as possible punishments for doping offences.
In Lausanne, a preliminary meeting of the IOC with International Sport Federations took place on November 27. The aim was to discuss the formation of an independant Anti-Doping Agency (a suggestion made in the 1980s by the late German anti-doping expert Manfred Donike), and to reach an agreement on how to unify the federations' lists of banned substances and suspension protocol. Three federations—tennis, soccer, and cycling—were against a minimum ban of two years for a first steroid offence, and things remained at a standstill.
Scheduled to take place in Lausanne on February 2-4, the upcoming doping conference is already being discredited by critics who see it as a publicity stunt in the making. Indeed, the fact that the IOC Lords have been hit by crisis in their own ranks makes it hard to believe they will have their attention fully on the subject in February.
Last month the IOC got hit firmly below the belt by one of its older members, Marc Hodler of Switzerland, who blew the whistle on widespread corruption and pay-offs among IOC members during the bidding for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. SLOC President Frank Joklin, along with two other senior members of the bidding committee, have already resigned, and as many as twelve IOC members, including kingpin Samaranch himself, could come under fire as the scandal unfolds. An IOC inquiry into the matter headed by Canadian Dick Pound should be presented at a meeting of the executive board January 23-24.
Meanwhile, many big names are expected to turn up in Lausanne, including Germany's Interior Minister Otto Schily, France's Minister for Youth and Sport Marie-Georges Buffet, and the British Minister for Sport, Tony Banks. It remains to be seen if the IOC can salvage its tumbling house of cards at all, let alone address international sport's biggest issue with any convincing action at all. The future of sport in general, from the little league players to the cheering fans to the billions of dollars in corporate sponsorships, may depend on it.