Despite the promise of an effective new drug test, the USOC drags its heels
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Dispatches, April 1998
At 53, Allen Murray swims five times a week, and when he spots his friend and frequent opponent Phil Whitten at meets, he promises to kick ass in the 200-meter breaststroke. But like most recreational athletes, Murray doesn’t want to win at any cost. “I want a fair race,” he says.
That’s become something of a quaint notion in the world of sports, as one scandal after another involving performance-enhancing drugs has come to light. And ironically, it’s taken an obscure masters swimmer like Murray, who also happens to be a biochemist, to dramatize the weakness of the athletic establishment’s resolve to make sure its competitors are clean.
At a meet in 1993, Murray ran into Whitten, editor of Swimming magazine, who began deploring the growing use of the latest designer drug, called EPO, adding that there was no reliable test to detect it. Murray, who runs an Irvine, California, biotech firm called Glycozyme Inc., couldn’t understand why, since he knew a lot about EPO —
The human body produces EPO naturally, and the recombinant form was developed in the late eighties primarily for the treatment of kidney disease. Endurance athletes — mostly cyclists, but also long-distance runners, cross-country skiers, and swimmers — discovered that EPO injections could result in astonishing increases in aerobic performance, as much as 10 to 15
Nonetheless, according to a number of cycling insiders — and even a few former professional riders — EPO remains quite in vogue. Top-level professional cyclists have come to believe that “without EPO it is impossible to win,” according to Sandro Donati, a professor of exercise physiology and a member of the Italian National Olympic Committee’s antidrug commission.
Given all this, one would think that USOC officials must have been ecstatic when Murray was able to produce an antibody that affixes itself to recombinant EPO but not the natural kind. In fact, says Murray, when he first reported his results, they were ecstatic, and invited him to apply for the funding needed to complete his test. But now, after spending a great deal of his own
Not so, according to Wade Exum, the USOC’s director of drug-control administration. “We’re still very interested in it,” he says. “But there’s an issue of both money and the prospects for success. It’s hard when someone asks you for $600,000 and says maybe we’ll get something, maybe we won’t.”
But Murray is confident of his research and has even submitted a stripped-down proposal for $150,000 at Exum’s request. Still no word. In fact, Exum acknowledges that Murray’s proposal hasn’t even been formally considered, citing staff changes that have slowed the formation of a review committee that’s supposed to evaluate Murray’s findings. Does Exum know when such a panel
In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee flatly turned down Murray’s request that it bankroll the rest of his research. (The IOC has announced several times that it is on the verge of introducing its own test for EPO, but the Italian doctor who announced this supposed breakthrough has himself been investigated for allegedly being a supplier of EPO to athletes, and
“This sounds like a very familiar scenario,” says Dr. Robert Voy, Exum’s predecessor at the USOC during the 1984 and 1988 games, who quit over what he calls a “lack of commitment” by the committee to create an effective drug-testing program. Whitten, who calls the use of EPO, by Chinese swimmers in particular, “endemic if not systemic,” is more blunt: “The Olympic committees
Murray, for his part, admits that he hopes to profit by eventually licensing his test but maintains that he has no interest in making a killing in the drug-testing business. Rather, he says, he’s simply baffled by the maze of bureaucracy and political intrigue he has stumbled into — and adds that he now believes something dire will have to occur before the problem he’s