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Bush thrills World Anti-Doping Agency

By John Mehaffey
January 30, 2004 20:31 IST
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Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), had settled down with his wife to watch the State of the Union address with the wary scepticism Canadians reserve for their neighbours.

"We watch this thing because we are next door," the former International Olympic Committee vice-president recalled in an interview. "We go through this stuff like the Academy awards; is this the worst State of the Union address? Is it in the top five, or something like that?"

What he was to hear from George W. Bush both astounded and delighted the 61-year-old Canadian lawyer.

"The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous and it sends the wrong message -- that there are short cuts in accomplishment and that performance is more important than character," the US president said.

The statement was considered sufficiently remarkable to lead CNN's sports bulletins for the remainder of the day. To Pound it was a signal that the United States is finally waking up to the problem of drugs in sport.

"If you think about all the things that were fighting to get into the State of the Union address," said Pound. "This is the first time that a president of the United States or a world leader has ever come out with this kind of statement."

President Bush was referring to uniquely American sports, where drugs use has long been tolerated. Four American footballers have been among the handful of elite athletes who tested positive for the previously unknown steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) late last year.

Pound has been scornful in the past of what he calls "gladitorial sports", where spectators and participants alike could not care less what the athletes put in their bodies.

But he believes perceptions are now changing in the United States.

"Baseball is the American national sport," he said. "The father takes his son into the ball park. Then he says 'son, some day if you put enough of this stuff into you body and you can lie convincingly enough you might be out there playing the national sport'. What kind of message is that?

"I don't want my grandchildren to have to become chemical stock piles in order to be good at sport. This kind of approach is starting to resonate."

Despite's Pound's outward optimism, a significant number of people involved in top-level sport believe WADA's efforts are ultimately doomed because of one simple economic imperative. If taking drugs means the difference between winning a gold medal and becoming a millionaire or finishing sixth and continuing to struggle financially, won't athletes always be tempted to cheat?

"You hear that, you hear that," Pound sighed. "I don't know. I can see why I might be tempted to do it. I don't see why I should condone it."

But can WADA, which is funded jointly by the Olympic movement and national governments, win the war? Or will it always be a holding operation as chemists develop new and better drugs?

"I would say, ask me a different question," Pound responded. "When would you declare the war has been won? I would say it would be won when 99.9 percent, whatever the overwhelming figure is, when the athletes and those around them don't cheat because that's the wrong thing to do and the old men in blazers will catch the other 0.1 percent.

"You are never going to stop a small percentage of society from cheating. Sport is a sub-section of a society as a whole. There's always criminals. Society needs its police forces and its courts' systems and we need the ability to sanction.

"That's part of society and we just run our little part of it." 

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John Mehaffey
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