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Olympic Anti-Doping an Uphill Battle 

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It’s Olympics time, and the air is full of . . . doping scandals. China withdraws 27 athletes because of “suspicious” test results . . . Two Canadian Olympians are disqualified after testing positive for cocaine and steroids, respectively . . . A White House–backed study says fractured leadership and corporate endorsements promote an Olympic drug culture.

So, who will be this year’s Ben Johnson or Michelle Smith-de Bruin? For answers, OffBeat turned to former world-class runner and triathlete Mark Sisson of Malibu, who leaves this week for Sydney, where he will watch the games and help officiate.

“There are so many gray areas, you and I could have a three-day conversation, it’s so complex,” said the trim, blond Sisson, who, as he said himself, appears to be “the fittest 47-year-old” you’ll ever meet.

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Sisson lives in a sun-infused, driftwood-gray home on Point Dume, from which he markets a legal sports supplement called Damage Control Master Formula ($129 a month). Secretary-general (number-two guy) at the International Triathlon Union, he has been involved in the much-vaunted Olympic anti-doping campaign for the past 12 years. As we speak, his young son runs in and out retrieving toys.

The first factor complicating the fight against doping, he said, is the imperfect art of testing. A reliable test for EPO, a major banned supplement, was introduced only three months ago, and it involves a complicated double urine/blood screening. Doping with human growth hormone still cannot be detected, Sisson said.

Then, there’s the level-playing-field argument. The aerobic advantages of EPO can be duplicated by sleeping in a hypoxic tent, which simulates high-altitude climate conditions.

“Somebody could spend $12,000 on a hypoxic chamber. Is it hypocrisy to have EPO kicked out but not the chamber? Same net effect,” Sisson noted.

For the first time, the International Olympic Committee is trying large-scale off-competition testing. But already, there are reports of competitors disappearing before the testers arrive.

“Think of the logistics of trying to keep track of 10,000 elite athletes around the world: where they are, their addresses, when they are going to be there,” Sisson said.

Even when doping athletes are caught, they often beat the rap. One guy got off on a nandrolone (steroid) charge by claiming he’d been drinking beer and having sex four times a night, Sisson recalled. Another steroid case, involving a British triathlete, went all the way to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, only to be thrown out because of a simple mathematical error by the testing lab.

“A technicality, really . . . the case cost $100,000,” said Sisson.

Like many other world-class athletes, Sisson questions the wisdom of the IOC’s banned-substance list. Creatine, for example, is okay, while DHEA is not. Both are safe and effective, he said. In fact, Sisson, who serves on an anti-doping committee, sometimes questions the ban on performance enhancers altogether. His own career as a runner and triathlete was ended by chronic osteoarthritis and tendinitis in his ankles caused by his punishing training.

“There’s a certain irony: We take a world-class athlete, pummel him with workouts and then deny health-enhancing drugs,” said Sisson.

Still, Sisson thinks this just might be the first clean Olympics.

“You could take the pessimistic view that mad scientists and twisted athletes will always be one step ahead of the curve,” he said. “But the chances of getting caught are so high now, it doesn’t seem worth the risk.”

They Really Want a Little Bruin

Upping the ante in the “designer baby” derby, an Orange County lawyer is advertising an $80,000 bounty for ovarian eggs from a tallish, brainy, white coed.

“Height approximately 5’6” or taller — Caucasian — SAT score around 1300, or high ACT,” says a large ad in the August 21–25 edition of UCLA’s Daily Bruin student newspaper. City of Orange lawyer Greg L. Eriksen, whose law office is listed as the ad contact, did not return calls inquiring about the identity of the “particular client” for whom he is soliciting high-priced fertility help. (Eriksen’s secretary said he would have no comment.) The ad also promises “extra compensation” for someone “especially gifted” in athletics, science/mathematics or music.

“We would have extreme ethical problems with such an offer,” says Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), which earlier this year recommended that egg compensation be limited to no more than $10,000. The report was triggered by several cases of $25,000-to-$100,000 egg premiums being offered at Ivy League schools and Stanford, as well as by a sexy-supermodel-egg auction mounted by a Malibu fashion photographer 11 months ago.

The ASRM, which says donors should be paid for their time and trouble only, has been unable to confirm that any of the previous big egg bounties were ever paid out, Tipton says. But egg donation, virtually unheard of a decade ago, has soared in popularity, particularly for women age 40-plus, who may not have viable eggs of their own. According to the ASRM, the number of babies born from donor eggs, 112 in 1989, leaped to 2,458 in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available.

Experts worry that the steep prices are an overwhelming incentive for a donor to lie about her genetic background, or to suppress internal conflicts that could come back to haunt her, particularly if she has fertility difficulties in the future.

Not to mention the specter of Nazi-style eugenics: There have been no bounty offers yet for short Hispanic women. And egg purchasers beware: You don’t always get what you pay for.

“You can have retarded babies born to rocket scientists,” notes Dr. Carl Herbert, medical director of the San Francisco Fertility Centers.

Parental fitness is a ticklish subject in the assisted-fertility community. What’s the alternative to laissez faire? Government-licensed moms and dads? But will a couple who paid $80,000 hoping for a science whiz be happy with a dumb lunk destined to pump gas at the corner filling station?

Until the first egg-donor Mommie Dearest, we’ll probably never know.

“The people offering the big money, it’s not that much money to them . . . and they don’t want to be studied,” says Herbert.

Political News You May Have Missed

While some have questioned Dianne Feinstein’s commitment to the working men and women of California, the Weekly has never doubted that DiFi would get down with the workers whenever she could. Indeed, only her burning proletarian zeal could possibly explain her headlong Labor Day topple.

According to her Senate spokesman Howard Gantman, Feinstein, who’s up for re-election this November, delivered some speeches in Los Angeles on the Friday before Labor Day, then traveled for a weekend’s vacation to her home in Aspen, Colorado, where she fell down the stairs and fractured her leg. Gantman released no further details, but the Weekly can only imagine what was going through DiFi’s mind in the moments before her abrupt descent: My God, what am I doing in Aspen? There isn’t a worker within 200 miles of this place, except for the servants and that guy who fills up the Lear jets. And it’s Labor Day! Shouldn’t I be out in Oakland or someplace marching with workers? They make Lear jets in Oakland, don’t they? Dick, have someone start the car! I gotta — my, that young lady who buffed the stairs did a fine job — gooooooo!

Whatever DiFi’s Aspen layover tells us about her sense of class solidarity, it also makes clear just how seriously she regards the threat to her re-election from the candidacy of Republican Tom Campbell. She may be breaking a leg, but she ain’t breaking a sweat.

And on another front: Among the 300 right-wing economists who endorsed George W.’s presidential campaign last week was Nobel laureate Myron Scholes, who won the prize for developing mathematical models for pricing the spreads on securities. Scholes took those models with him to Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund where he became a partner, and all went swimmingly until one Friday two years ago when the firm lost $553 million in a single day, though Scholes’ models had said no loss larger than $35 million was even possible. The firm threatened to go under, dragging down every other financial institution within a 12,000-mile radius, until the Fed stepped in to arrange a bailout/takeover. W.’s campaign has yet to confirm reports that Scholes will be placed in charge of privatizing Social Security.

—Harold Meyerson

Edited by Gale Holland

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