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The skinny on steriod scandals

By Damin Esper

Tour de France champion Floyd Landis tests positive for a testosterone-epitestosterone ratio of 11-1. Olympic 100 meter champion and co-world record holder Justin Gatlin tests positive for elevated testosterone levels. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jason Grimsley is busted for illegally receiving a package of Human Growth Hormone.

It would appear that top level athletes are still supplementing their workouts with performance enhancing drugs despite the high-profile BALCO prosecution and the congressional hearings held in March 2005.

Steroids and supplements have one goal: To elevate the body's testosterone level. This allows an athlete to work harder for longer periods and with less recovery time.

A University of Michigan report said steroids were first developed for medicinal use in the 1930s. By the 1950s, they were being used by bodybuilders. Then, they began to seep into sports. The International Olympic Committee banned them and began testing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Steroids have been linked to heart attacks, strokes, liver problems, sterility and stunted growth. They also can cause violent mood swings, aka 'roid rage.

Unlike Popeye's can of spinach, their effect is generally not immediate. They allow dedicated athletes to work harder than their competition. In other words, it's cheating for hard workers, not lazy ones.

However, Landis' case calls into question that analysis. Landis tested positive after the 17th Stage of the Tour de France. Landis won the stage, a brutal trek through the mountains, running away from the pack early. It was a strategy that most cyclists wouldn't dare try. Breaking away that soon means you have to do more work instead of taking turns drafting for each other.

The performance was even more impressive after Landis' disastrous 16th Stage, when he fell from first place to eight minutes back, a heretofore insurmountable deficit.

Longtime observers in Olympic sports have said that if a performance is to good to be true, it probably is. Landis' comeback apparently was. He said he tested negative eight times during the race. His doctor said the test showed the testosterone was artificial. The question, assuming he's guilty, is what did Landis take that gave him such an immediate payoff?

The BALCO case shows the cat and mouse game between the cheaters and those who are trying to catch them. Victor Conte's Burlingame laboratory, officially known as the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, distributed designer steroids, known as the Clear and the Cream. The Clear is tetrahydragestrinone, a previously-undetectable steroid created by Patrick Arnold, who was sentenced to prison for his role in the case on August 4.

Arnold also created androstenedione, the steroid precursor used by Mark McGwire during the season he set the single-season home run record.

The Clear was undetectable because steroid tests look for traces of specific steroids. Each time a new one is developed, a new test must be developed.

Track coach Trevor Graham, who coaches Gatlin and is also under investigation for his ties to BALCO, anonymously mailed a syringe with the Clear to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. If he hadn't done that, no test for the steroid would exist.

That's the reason Olympic and international sports such as cycling test for testosterone levels. Testosterone and epitestosterone normally are present in equal amounts in the body, although the levels can fluctuate naturally. A ratio above 4-1 is considered a positive test.

Designer steroids are very expensive to create so they are generally only available to the highest level athletes. Traditional steroids can do the trick for athletes in sports that have limited testing such as the major professional sports in the United States. Users can cycle their use during the off-season, when there is no testing, build up their muscles, then come off the juice during the season when they will be tested.

However, some athletes feel the need to use performance enhancers during the season, either to shorten their recovery time after injuries or to give them a boost during a long season. What are players using now that steroids are banned? Human Growth Hormone could be the drug of choice.

According to information from the Arizona Republic, ESPN and the BBC, growth hormone, like testosterone, is naturally produced by the body and stimulates growth of muscles, cartilage and bone. Before genetic engineering, growth hormone was harvested from the pituitary glands of corpses.

Side effects are excessive growth in the bones and organs. Enlarged hearts have killed several athletes at relatively young ages, although there is no way to prove that HGH was connected.

The drug can only be prescribed to people suffering from dwarfism and wasting syndrome (a side-effect of AIDS and cancer). However, the only tests for it are considered unreliable.

Grimsley was busted after receiving the package of HGH in April. At first, Grimsley cooperated with the investigation. He was interviewed by IRS agent Jeff Novitzky, who has led the BALCO investigation. After Grimsley withdrew his cooperation, agents raided his house in June. Days later, Grimsley asked for his release. The Diamondbacks obliged.

However, Grimsley's interview with agents detailed both his own and other players drug use. Grimsley told investigators that he had used steroids and HGH, but switched to HGH exclusively after baseball adopted its new steroid policy. He also said he had used HGH to help return from ligament surgery in just 10 months, considered a very fast recovery.

The biggest problem for sports administrators is that performance enhancing drugs work. Athletes that make it to the upper echelon of their sport generally have an unnatural focus, almost a tunnel vision. They also pride themselves on their work ethic and are always trying to find ways to outwork the competition. That combination tends to minimize the health risks involved, at least in the athlete's mind. As a result, we are likely to continue to see reports of athletes cheating in the news.