fredag 18 december 2009

From cheaters to leaders; Canada lost its innocence as a country with Ben Johnson's fall from grace...

Since then, we've been at the forefront of drug testing as cheating has become more and more common... It is a distinctive Canadian fantasy that we are all hoser cousins to Const. Benton Fraser, the overly polite, virtuous Mountie in the TV series Due South.After all, Vancouver Canucks fans have roundly booed the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner at playoff games, international speedskaters have complained of being shut out from access to the Richmond oval, and our single-minded Own the Podium, win-at-all-costs approach to the 2010 Winter Games tilts the playing field too much for some tastes.
"That, to me, is just not in the spirit of the Olympics," chided U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender.
It’s not the first time somebody has held a mirror up to us and we didn’t like the reflection.
In 1988, sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified after winning 100-metre Olympic gold because a rival supposedly spiked his water bottle. As explanations go, it was lame —as plausible as Tiger Woods headed to the driving range when he crashed his Escalade at 2 a.m. Yet despite the messiness and the furor Johnson created, sparking a royal commission and passionate national hand-wringing, we were forever changed by it.
We grew up, lost our sense of virginity and reversed the ratio — long on rhetoric but short on action — to become world leaders in the anti-doping movement.
That position was cemented in place — literally — when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) chose Montreal in 2001 as its home base. And it is no coincidence that Montreal is the hometown of lawyer Dick Pound, former International Olympic Committee vice-president, former chairman of WADA and one of the most strident critics of drug use in sports.
"I think there’s no question the Ben Johnson affair was a big shock to Canadians generally," Pound says. "It has propelled us into one of the leading countries in the anti-doping movement."
Even the name of Canada’s anti-doping body — the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport — has a moralistic, Benton Fraser ring to it, reflecting this country’s high-minded attitude to elite sport.Yet the watchdog agency responsible for administering our country’s anti-doping program seems to catch more "soft" drug takers than hardcore cheaters.
"The most common positive test [for a Canadian athlete] is marijuana," says Dr. Bob McCormack, Canada’s chief medical officer for the 2010 Olympics. "And pot is not exactly performance-enhancing."
But before we let our heads get as swelled up as baseball villain Barry Bonds’s transformed body, it’s naive to think there are no Canadians who accept performance enhancers as a means to a chemical edge.
Pound got into hot water with the National Hockey League in 2005 when he claimed about one-third of players, the majority of them Canadians, were taking advantage of »pharmaceutical assistance." It was a figure designed for shock value, though mild in comparison with Jose Canseco, the retired slugger who estimated that 85 per cent of major-leaguers were on steroids by the turn of the new millennium.
Pound is quick to point out that he is talking "stimulants," not "steroids," which can mean anything from caffeine intake (Wayne Gretzky gulped copious amounts of coffee before games), to Sudafed (an over-the-counter cold remedy players use to kick-start their motors) to heart-racing energy drink Red Bull.
"Just hearing [Alexander] Ovechkin say, ‘You don’t even need Red Bull to play in this building [Bell Centre in Montreal]’ tells you something," Pound says. "When players step out on the ice after ingesting these Sudafed and Red Bull cocktails, they’re just wired."
Still, what he says shouldn’t cause waves at all, not for anyone familiar with the Steroidal Era, and the hundreds of stories that remain buried. Did the fact that superhero Alex Rodriguez was unmasked as a cheat and admitted testing positive for steroids affect his already delicate relationship with Yankee fans? Not all, apparently, judging by the delirious throngs who lined the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan to celebrate the Yankees’ 27th World Series title. A-Rod’s public rehabilitation might not be over, but he has at least reached first base compared to Bonds. Rarely does the topic of steroids go public in the Canadian Football League because there is no drug-testing policy. That is supposed to be rolled into a new collective bargaining agreement in 2010, promises commissioner Mark Cohon. But how necessary it is or how effective it can be is open to question, given the CFL’s working-class culture and the limited resources available to put real teeth into testing.A decade ago, there was a saying that to be a great Olympic athlete you need a great coach and a great chemist. Now you might need a great lawyer.
After years of discussion, WADA marked its 10th anniversary in November by ratifying the biological passport system, perhaps the most vigilant test yet in the detection of performance-enhancing drugs. The project involves collecting a sample of an athlete’s blood, storing the profile on WADA’s database and monitoring it over time to detect variations that could indicate doping. Long after traces of a banned substance have been purged from the system, an athlete’s passport could indict him for cheating through an abnormal blood profile, even without a positive drug test. It’s a reason you won’t see five-time Olympic gold medal speed skater Claudia Pechstein at the Winter Games in February. On Nov. 25, the German lost her appeal of a two-year ban based on an unusually high level of immature blood cells, though no actual trace of a drug was found.
"Because our athletes have been tested more severely, and we’ve stressed education, they are generally cleaner than [athletes in] some other countries," McCormack suggests. "It’s like tax filing. The more likelihood of an audit, the less of an incentive there is to cheat."
No doubt about it, since the mortifying spectacle of Ben Johnson, Canadian athletes have remained remarkably free from the whiff of scandal — the potent smoke of cannabis notwithstanding.
AFP/Getty Images files
Photograph by: ROMEO GACAD, AFP SUN

tisdag 8 december 2009

ATHLETE OF THE DECADE: Like him or not, Bonds drew all eyes - and most MVP votes

A month ago, during simpler times, Tiger Woods was presented with a tricky question: Who would he pick as the athlete of the decade?
Plenty of possible choices - Lance Armstrong, Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds, Tom Brady, among them. Tiger, too. Told the list of candidates, and leaving himself out of the mix, Woods contemplated their merits for two holes during a pro-am in China before he finally found himself torn between Federer and Bonds.
Federer set the record for Grand Slam victories. And what did he find appealing about Bonds?
"Take the scandal out of it," Woods said. "He changed the game."
So there you have it. The whole Barry Bonds case, summed up by one of sports' greatest hitters.
On the field, with his maple bat cocked and his body covered in black armour, Bonds was a beast. Off the field, well, perhaps he also epitomized exactly what the era meant in baseball.
"No matter what people were thinking, they still came out to the park to see Barry," said Dusty Baker, Bonds' longtime manager in San Francisco. "Accuse him, cheer him, boo him, whatever. He was turning those turnstiles."
MVP in 2001. MVP in 2002. MVP in 2003. MVP in 2004. Remember this: No other player has won more than three MVP trophies in an entire career.
Oh, and the home runs.
A whopping 73 in a season and a record 762 for his career. Cameras flashed all over the Giants' waterfront ballpark in 2007 when he broke Hank Aaron's lifetime mark by launching No. 756 deep into the August night.
Bonds thrust both arms over his head when he connected, and the celebration began. He didn't seem to mind that Aaron and commissioner Bud Selig were absent, further fuelling the debate about steroid accusations and asterisks.
"This record is not tainted at all. At all. Period," Bonds declared.
Baker wasn't with the Giants then, but he once got a firsthand look at a similarscene. He was on deck in Atlanta when Aaron hit No. 715 in 1974 and broke Babe Ruth's record.
"I saw Hank Aaron every day," Baker said. "But when Barry Bonds was at his peak, boy!"
Easy to see why Bonds' achievements put him among the candidates for The Associated Press' Athlete of the Decade. And who would the slugger choose if he had a vote?
Woods, Bonds picked a few weeks ago. "He is an amazing golfer," Bonds told the AP through his publicist, Lisa Nitta.
Bonds' accomplishments may be equally amazing.
In 2001, he broke Mark McGwire's single-season home run record of 70. In 2002, he capped a monster post-season performance with his only World Series appearance - Bonds hit .356 with eight homers and 27 walks in 17 games that October, only to see the Giants fall short in Game 7 against the Angels.
In 2004, at age 40, Bonds became the oldest player to win an MVP award in North America's four major pro sports. He hit .362 with 45 home runs and 101 RBIs, yet those were hardly his most impressive stats.
His true dominance showed up in how teams pitched to him. Or rather, didn't pitch to him. Bonds drew 232 walks that year, 120 of them intentional passes. The Pittsburgh Pirates once gave him an intentional walk when he led off an inning - the 10th inning, that is.
Boosted by all those walks, Bonds reached base nearly 61 per cent of the time in 2004. Chances are, he didn't even do that as a kid playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard with his famous father. Who could?
Some pitchers basically decided to never fool around with Bonds. Consider Bonds' lifetime stats against reliever Guillermo Mota: 1-for-1, which was a home run, and eight walks. Arizona manager Buck Showalter took the same approach several years earlier, ordering Bonds to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded.
"Teams would try to take him out of the game, and he'd still find a way to beat you," Baker said.
Bonds missed most of 2005 because of knee trouble and couldn't find a club to sign him after 2007, when he led the majors in on-base average for the sixth time in seven years.
After winning three MVPs in the '90s, Bonds' totals for his shortened 2000s: 317 home runs with a .322 batting average, .517 on-base average and .724 slugging percentage.
Whether all of that will eventually lead Bonds to the Hall of Fame is uncertain. To some fans, he was the face of baseball's drug scandal, mentioned 103 times in the Mitchell Report.
Bonds steadfastly said he never knowingly used steroids - and he wasn't penalized by baseball - but still faces legal issues. In a case stemming from his testimony before a federal grand jury in December 2003, he pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of making false statements and one count of obstruction of justice.
The cloud of suspicion certainly cost Bonds an opportunity to play longer, he was indicted seven weeks after his final game, and could cut down his chance of being elected to Cooperstown.
His agent, Jeff Borris, contacted teams for more than a year trying to find Bonds a job. Now 45, Bonds has not officially announced his retirement.
"He was run out of Major League Baseball. Barry's been unfairly vilified in the Steroid Era," Borris asserted. "If he had been allowed to keep playing, he would've hit 800-plus home runs in his sleep."
AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.

torsdag 3 december 2009

Olympic athletes breaking drug rules should face lifetime ban: poll

OTTAWA — Olympic athletes caught taking illegal drugs should face harsh penalties such as a lifetime ban from competing in sports, according to a national poll released Tuesday.
An overwhelming majority of Canadians polled (92.8 per cent) said there should be "severe sanctions" on Olympic athletes who test positive for using performance-enhancing drugs.
The poll, done by the Ottawa-based Nanos Research, found that about one-third (32.7 per cent) wanted a lifetime ban placed on doping athletes.
Another third (33.7 per cent) want a penalty of at least four years, while the remainder (26.4 per cent) favoured a one-year suspension, according to the results.
"In essence, there is virtually zero tolerance among Canadians for athletes using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics," says pollster president Nik Nanos in a statement.
Only 3.2 per cent said there should not be any kind of penalty while 4.1 per cent said they were unsure about their opinion.
"I think it's a clear statement that Canadians continue to stand up for clean sport and a level playing field," added Paul Melia, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), one of the organizations involved in drug testing for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
Melia said Olympic athletes now face a two-year ban for a first-time offence, and a lifetime ban if caught a second time.
Organizers at the upcoming Games say they plan on taking nearly 2,500 urine and blood samples from athletes during the competitions. Those tests — both random and targeted — will begin Feb. 4. Athletes will be checked to see if they have unusually high levels of testosterone or growth hormones in their bodies.
The $16.4-million drug-testing program, which includes an $8.9-million state-of-the-art lab, is the toughest stance organizers have ever taken at the Winter Olympic Games.
In 2006, organizers at the Turin Games tested only 1,200 athletes while only 800 tests were done in Salt Lake City.
Melia said the stronger anti-doping push in Vancouver is an effort to curb microdosing — using a banned substance well in advance of competition so that performance is enhanced, but the substance has cleared an athlete's body by the time of post-event testing — and to establish a larger sample database, since new technologies now allow blood samples to be stored for up to eight years.
"In Canada, we have been at it for a long time," Melia said. "Even before the world anti-doping code came into effect, we had a program that the code was based and modelled on."
Meanwhile, a quarter of the Canadians polled said they believed that drug use rates in the Olympics was still on the rise. Only one in five (19.6 per cent) believed the rates were falling.
The poll reported that Canadians had little faith in the World Anti-Doping Agency, which was developed 10 years ago to combat rampant drug use among athletes.
A spokesman with the Montreal-based agency could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Olympics have been plagued by a number of drug scandals.
In 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and world records at the 1988 Seoul Olympics after it was discovered he had been taking anabolic steroids.
Officials at the 1998 Nagano Olympics took away Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati's gold medal after he tested positive for marijuana use. The medal, the first to be won in the sport, eventually was returned to Rebagliati because marijuana was not on the banned drug list.
In 2007, U.S. track athlete Marion Jones admitted that she had taken steroids while at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Jones forfeited the five medals she had won at the Games after her confession.
The survey also found that the majority (73.8 per cent) of those polled said they will watch some of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games in February, meaning it could be among the most-watched sporting events in Canadian history.
"Another way to contextualize the research? More Canadians are likely planning to watch the opening ceremonies in Vancouver than voted in the last federal election," said Nanos.
Nearly two-thirds (66.3 per cent) said they will tune into the opening ceremony on Feb. 12, while 68.4 per cent of Canadians polled said they were likely to follow daily recaps of events. Fewer (58.6 per cent) said they would watch the Games' closing ceremony.
The poll results were taken from a random telephone survey of 1,005 adults between Nov. 7 to Nov. 10.
It is accurate within 3.1 percentage points, plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.