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

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