Needless needles nailed

Needless needles nailed


Another crack: Former Olympic champion Tyler Hamilton features prominently in the long list of drug offenders. AFP

Biathletes and cross-country skiers have been caught with blood-doping paraphernalia at the Olympics. Major league baseball players have claimed they have received injections – not of steroids, but of vitamins and painkillers. Cycling teams have left behind trash cans littered with syringes.

A new front in anti-doping is trying to prevent all that, with a rule that goes much further than banning the use of the drugs themselves: it bans needles and other medical equipment that may be used to administer those drugs.

The latest move in the cat-and-mouse game between anti-doping officials and athletes who dope emerged when the International Olympic Committee announced that it would bar athletes competing at the 2012 London Games from having needles, syringes or other medical equipment without prior clearance.

Those items will be banned from the Olympic village, dormitories, locker rooms and training and competition sites, said the chairman of the IOC Medical Commission, Arne Ljungqvist, at the committee’s annual meeting in Durban, South Africa. Athletes with a legitimate medical need for injections must obtain approval for them from the Games’ chief medical officer, he said.

“We won’t accept medical equipment like syringes and needles in the field of play or non-medical environment,” Ljungqvist said. “It gives a very bad image and a bad message and can relate to misuse of drugs and doping.”

The IOC said more than 5,000 drug tests would be administered at the Games and in surprise out-of-competition tests before the Games. But, as history has shown, those tests simply cannot catch every athlete who has broken anti-doping rules.

At the 2006 Turin Games, Italian police raided the rooms of the Austrian cross-country and biathlon team and discovered medical equipment relating to blood doping, including syringes and plastic tubing. While none of those athletes had tested positive for doping at the Games, five of them were subsequently barred from competition.

After the Tour de France in 2009, French officials found syringes and other medical equipment in the medical waste in rooms that housed the Astana team during part of the race. But no punishments ever came as a result of an investigation launched by a Paris prosecutor.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has banned intravenous infusions since 2005, according to a spokesman for the agency. But Ljungqvist told the AP that it is still “too common” to find discarded needles and syringes in the living quarters of athletes once the Olympics or the world championships are over.

Now the IOC is following the international cycling, rowing and gymnastics federations – which already have no-needle policies – in doing something about it.

“I’ve heard the criticisms of ‘How can you enforce this rule?’ but at the end of the day, the policy still sends the correct message and is a great deterrent for riders who are thinking about doping,” Jonathan Vaughters, director of the Garmin-Cervelo cycling team, said in a telephone interview from France, where the no-needles policy made its debut at the Tour last week.

Riders now cannot inject substances like recovery-boosting vitamins, sugars, enzymes and amino acids. Any legitimate use of needles must be reported to the International Cycling Union within 24 hours. A cyclist breaking that rule can be suspended for up to six months and fined $116,000. Teams breaking it can be ejected from the race.

Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, applauded the effort of cycling and the IOC, saying banning medical paraphernalia would stop what he sees as a growing culture of non-medically necessary injections in sports.

Now, he said, those athletes cannot wiggle their way out of trouble by saying they were just receiving a vitamin shot, which is not banned, if they were really receiving a prohibited steroid shot. “Now, if you get caught with needles, we’re not going to debate whether those needles were used for vitamin B12 or for steroids, like in the Roger Clemens debate,” he said. “We’re just telling you that you can’t have needles.”

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