"Anybody who tells me that removing athletes' blood or giving someone else's blood for transfusion into an athlete to try to improve performance is an O.K. thing to do—he's just nuts."
So said Dr. Irving Dardik, the director of a U.S. Olympic Committee investigative panel, after it was disclosed last week that seven members of the U.S. Olympic cycling team, including four medalists, one a champion, had "blood boosted" at the Los Angeles Games, and that another, Danny Van Haute, had done so at the July 5-7 trials.
They had received transfusions in the belief, or hope, that the increased red-blood-cell count would get more oxygen to their tiring muscles during their races. Van Haute had been reinfused with his own blood, which had been withdrawn several weeks earlier and had been held in cold storage. At the Games, the other seven had received the blood of relatives and others with similar blood types, a procedure that carries significantly greater health risks than reinfusion (see box, page 17), and theretofore had rarely been used in an attempt to win sporting events.
Steve Hegg, who won a gold medal and a silver, received blood, as did silver medalists Rebecca Twigg, Pat McDonough and Leonard Nitz, who also won a bronze. John Beckman, Mark Whitehead and Brent Emery were identified as the others. The rest of the 24-member team had been offered transfusions and had turned them down.
January 21, 1985
"It's real bad for cycling, and it's real bad for all of us who didn't participate," said Connie Carpenter, a "completely antisubstance" rider who edged Twigg by millimeters to win the women's road race. "The blame falls directly on the coaching staff, and from everything I've heard since, I'm surprised nobody died." Pursuiter Dave Grylls had also refused blood boosting, and he, too, was quoted as saying there had been pressure from the coaching staff.
The staff they blame is headed by Edward Borysewicz, known to the cycling world as Eddy B. The transfusions were suggested by him. by staff members or by the physician who oversaw the boosting, Dr. Herman Falsetti, a professor of cardiology at the University of Iowa. Last weekend Col. F. Don Miller, executive director of the USOC, said that the "responsible individuals should be held accountable."
The cycling scandal was not the only bad sports news of the week. It was revealed that 86 U.S. athletes in other sports had flunked USOC-administered drug tests in the nine months before the L.A. Games. The tests had turned up anabolic steroids, stimulants and testosterone; two athletes who had made the U.S. team were dropped. And at Vanderbilt and Clemson, a steroid scandal was breaking (page 18).
Before L.A., the U.S. hadn't won a medal in Olympic cycling since 1912, a very long drought. Borysewicz, an assistant on the 1976 Polish Olympic team, defected to the West that year. Shortly after settling in the U.S., he showed up at the North Jersey Bicycle Club and became acquainted with Olympic cycling team manager Mike Fraysse, a member of a venerable cycling family, who lobbied to help Borysewicz become coach of the national team in 1977. In 1979 Fraysse became president of the U.S. Cycling Federation, a post his grandfather held from 1929 to '33. He served until 1982 and became a vice-president of the organization last fall.
At first Borysewicz was seen as a retiring sort, but before long he was perceived to be distinctly brusque. By the time the U.S. swept all but one event at the 1983 Pan Am Games, he was regarded as domineering. But on ABC television last August, Eddy B.'s riders made history. His team won nine Olympic medals, including four golds. Borysewicz was named Man of the Year by the Cycling Federation's official publication. Cycling U.S.A. It had been a very good year for Eddy B. in 1984, but as 1985 began, things were unraveling.
Rob Lea had been elected president of the federation on Oct. 12, but had resigned on Dec. 19. USCF secretary Deke Smith resigned two days later. On Jan. 2, Lea sent a letter to members of the board, saying he had quit because an in-house investigation disclosed "that our coaching staff blood-doped some of our Olympic team riders in order to enhance their performance at the Olympic Games."
The phrase blood doping, or more properly, boosting or packing, had a familiar ring to some of Lea's associates. "We've been looking into this stuff for years and years and years," says Fraysse, now the acting USCF president. "We weren't gonna fall behind the Russians or East Germans any more." In the effort to keep up, Fraysse, Borysewicz and team technical director Ed Burke began discussing in late 1983 whether the team, or the federation, might conduct a research project to determine the benefits of boosting. Burke wrote to USCF executive director Dave Prouty, who wrote back that boosting was probably a bad idea, but that the USOC should be approached.
Burke did write to USOC medical director Kenneth (Casey) Clarke, and on Dec. 28, 1983, Clarke replied in a letter to the USOC's Miller. "[Boosting] is fairly widely practiced in Europe, especially among cyclists and Nordic skiiers," he wrote in part, noting that for medical reasons "...the use of someone else's blood is now clearly verboten." Of boosting with an athlete's own blood cells, Clarke concluded, "From a medical point of view, it can now be considered ethical. However, no organization, the IOC especially, has ever clarified the ethical value of IE [induced erythrocythemia, or the introduction of a surplus of red blood cells] in sport." He promised he'd check on the question of starting a research project.
Last January, Miller said there would be no such project. Despite this, cycling's blood-boosting advocates were not deterred. The USOC wasn't being firm, they reasoned, and with some justification. "I was getting information that we don't want to touch this thing with a 10-foot pole because it was controversial," says Burke. "But there wasn't any more written stuff."
The coaches had a loophole. Boosting was against USOC medical policy, but it wasn't against the rules. The IOC's doping policy bans "any physiological substance taken in abnormal quantity or taken by an abnormal route of entry into the body, with the sole intention of increasing in an artificial and unfair manner performance in competition...." That seems a clear enough condemnation of blood boosting, but the IOC had never seen fit to outlaw it specifically. And indeed there is no reliable test at present for detecting infused blood cells. "There was a policy vacuum," says Les Earnest, a board member of the USCF, "and these guys moved into it and filled it in a stupid way."
Says Burke: "We discussed this question back and forth. Then riders came to us for information. We presented the pros and we presented the cons. And we told them, 'If you don't believe us, go out and talk to someone else.' I said, 'If you want to go through with something like this, it's your decision.' " The coaches never personally counseled the athletes on the ethics of blood boosting beyond telling them it was "legal."
Van Haute rode well at the trials in July, as well as he ever had. He was the only rider to boost for them, and suddenly a new interest in the process was kindled. It looked as though there was going to be boosting in L.A., so, "I had a moral obligation to myself and to [the riders]," says Burke, "to get them somebody to help them."
"They knew I wouldn't do it," says Dr. Thomas B. Dickson Jr. of Allentown, Pa., the bike team's unofficial doctor. "I had a run-in the year before with the coaches. It wasn't blood or anything, it wasn't anything dangerous. But I said, 'Look, y'know, knock it off. Put the syringes back in your pockets. Because if the press gets ahold of this, number one, you're gonna see 7-Eleven [a major sponsor of riders and builder of the Olympic velodrome] as a small speck on the horizon.' "
With Dickson certain to be uncooperative, Burke turned to Falsetti, an associate from his days as a physiologist at the University of Iowa. Falsetti is, as even Dickson says, "a physician with tremendous qualifications." He will not discuss the particulars of the transfusions he oversaw in a room at the Carson, Calif. Ramada Inn three to five days before the events of riders who accepted blood boosting. "When I talk to a rider I tell him, first, I never do anything that is risky, unethical or illegal," said Falsetti last week. "And, second, I will never tell anybody about this."
There were only two doctors with the bike team in L.A., and the other, Dickson, felt the transfusions were both risky and unethical. The three weeks between the trials and the Games didn't allow enough time to use the safer reinfusion procedure Van Haute had employed—in which one to two pints of blood are extracted, to be replenished naturally, the red blood cells spun out and, several weeks later, reinfused into the body—so Falsetti had to use simple transfusions from donors. "It can be equally effective," says Falsetti. "I think the chances are best with your own blood, slightly riskier with someone else's. But if it's a relative, that's as close as you can get."
Dickson says, "Getting blood from somebody else without good reason—that's bad, by definition. I had two riders who got sick out there after they'd been transfused. I actively discouraged riders from doing it at the time." At one point, claims Dickson, he noticed sprinter and eventual silver medalist Nelson Vails in line for a transfusion. "I said, 'Look, you don't have to take it, you're only going 200 yards.' And he said, 'You mean, I don't have to?' And I said, 'No, it's gonna do you no good at all.' Well, he was happy. He popped out, and away he went."
Dickson says he nearly revealed what had been happening right then. "I was so upset out there that this whole thing was going on. These are my riders; these are my kids. And, Christ, the decision I had to make at the time was to blow it out of the water then, which would destroy the whole team right there at the Olympics. And I elected not to, which I can be faulted for." Falsetti responds: "If Dickson didn't like what was going on out there, he could've moved out of the room with me. I wouldn't have drunk so much of his vodka." Falsetti claims he wasn't alone in managing a blood-boosting line at the L.A. Games. He estimates that, of non-American athletes performing in endurance events, "at least half of them who had a chance to win a medal blood-boosted." Some other observers believe that many athletes did, but not that high a percentage.
The U.S. cyclists who boosted were those most snugly under the wing of Eddy B., who could not be reached for comment as this article was being prepared. "The pressure must have been pretty tremendous," says Carpenter. "My own feeling is that the coaches planted the seeds of doubt in the riders' minds that, if they didn't do it, they wouldn't win medals. That's an unfair thing to do to an athlete—to tell him everybody else is doing it, and you can too." Doug Shapiro, a rider who didn't make the Olympic team but who has talked to several who did, says, "Eddy B. tried to sell the blood doping to everyone."
The investigation Lea referred to in his letter of resignation also disclosed that the team was experimenting with high, if legal, quantities of caffeine, and that that's not the kind of thing you stumble into. Lea says, "They're big boys. Anyone with normal interpersonal perception could see they were doing something wrong."
Team rider John Beckman demurs. "It's a very subjective question," he says. "You can't just say doing that is wrong, or doing that is right." And many athletes live in a world in which "interpersonal" relationships are not what they are normally considered to be. There often exists a profound trust in authorities and one's coach. And Burke says, "As long as they're not doing anything illegal, then why not do it, if you believe that it's going to help your performance? And I believe that's a decision an athlete has to make."
Van Haute said, "I didn't think it was wrong at the time, because you can't detect it." Beckman contends, "If anybody did do any blood boosting, it's their own business."
Not so, says Dardik: "It's absolute that this was unethical, unacceptable and illegal as far as the USOC was concerned. All [this discussion of] questionable legality to me [is] immaterial."
Dardik's strong comment notwithstanding, the USOC has been late in making its opposition to blood boosting really emphatic. It was not until three months after the Games that Clarke wrote to Earnest, then conducting Lea's in-house investigation: "The United States Olympic Committee considers 'blood packing' or 'blood doping'...as unacceptable under any conditions." At that time Clarke urged the IOC to "declare itself explicitly in this regard."
What Clarke and Dardik seem to be declaring is the need for a return to traditional values; issues should be judged on the basis of right or wrong, not legality or illegality.
But Burke remains defiant. "You know where we were in the dark ages," he says. "You know where we are now. Nobody says we wear white gloves."