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WADA VP Sees U.S. Making Progress Against Doping

Stockholm, Sweden — Fifty years ago, there were cyclists as guilty as Lance Armstrong. But back then, they never would have been caught.

At least that’s the story told by Arne Ljungqvist, a 1952 Olympic high jumper who has gone on to become a medical researcher, the head of the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission, and the vice-president of the World Anti-Doping Agency. These days, he’s retired from the faculty of the Karolinska Institute and “only” holds the two latter positions.

The progress that has been made in the last two decades, Ljungqvist says, is astonishing, especially given that the Medical Commission took six years after its formation in 1961 before it even released its first report, much less administer a drug test.

“You can see it,” he said in an interview. “In measurable sport, you can see the difference. In no (Olympic) throwing event in London would the gold medalist been on the podium in Seoul 24 years ago. It’s incredible. So it’s been cleaned up.”

When Ljungqvist joined the anti-doping crusade in the 1970s, the movement was hampered not only by a lack of effective tests for performance-enhancing substances (a problem that continues today), but also a cultural disagreement with the whole premise that such drugs should be banned. In his native Sweden, athletes petitioned that Ljungqvist be fired from the track and field federation when he campaigned for a doping ban.

“(Athletes) thought it was unfair because this was the Cold War,” Ljungqvist said. “They knew what was going on — they said, ‘Why will you not give us the opportunity to be competitive?’ That was the attitude at the time, and the media was on their side. It was so much ignorance, unawareness, misunderstanding, confusion.”

Ljungqvist eventually prevailed. He was helped by a weightlifter named Tomas Johansson, who had his silver medal from the 1984 Olympics revoked after he tested positive for steroids. According to Ljungqvist, Johansson was a “nice chap,” a sympathetic figure who readily admitted to doping because it was the only way to win.

The Swedish public came to understand that their athletes shouldn’t have to cheat, and that the practice should be banned worldwide. Today, there’s very little doping in Sweden, and a strong public sentiment against it. One of the few stars to test positive in the last decade literally fled the country in shame.

That’s a far cry from Armstrong’s reaction to his own scandal. Just last week, the cyclist tweeted a photo of himself relaxing at home in Austin, Texas, his walls still adorned with yellow jerseys from the seven Tour de France victories of which he has since been stripped. Fans responded with sentiments like, “You earned every one of them!”

It appears that the U.S. didn’t tackle doping quite like Ljungqvist did.

After “cleaning up his own house,” Ljungqvist began his career at the international level, in the beginning mainly through the IAAF, the international track and field federation. By 1988, he was head of doping control for the track events at the Olympics and handled the Ben Johnson case, where the IOC stripped the Canadian 100-meter gold medalist and world record-setter of his title.

But even then, the IOC had relatively limited power, although things had certainly improved since the Medical Commission’s inception. Although the Commission was supposed to be eliminating doping at the Olympics, since the Games happened every four years, much of the heavy lifting was done by individual sports federations like the IAAF in the off years. Plus, higher-ups showed little concern for the subject.

“Sports administrators and the leadership were ambivalent about us, and the media was not very much on our side,” Ljungqvist said. “There was the Cold War going on. East Germany had very much drug use, and it was the same, although less sophisticated, in other parts of Europe. And all of this was done to show the superiority of the political system to produce good Olympic athletes.”

Internationally, however, 1988 was when things began to change for people like Ljungqvist, The 100-meter final in Seoul had been one of the most anticipated and glamorous athletic events of the year. When the new world record-holder was caught cheating, the problem of drugs in sport became more visible than ever before.

Then, too, other factors began to help shape a new attitude toward drug use in sports. The Cold War was fading, the Berlin Wall falling and the Soviet Union dissolving. Without the political complications, enforcing the anti-doping rules became easier.

“We got good recognition of what we were doing,” Ljungqvist said.

But what of the U.S.? And what of cycling?

American athletes were part of the Cold War, and throughout that period, Ljungqvist implied, dopers were excused. The U.S. Olympic Committee and national sports federations were running the drug testing program, and as late as the Syndey Olympics in 2000, Ljungqvist claims, the organization was covering up positive tests and allowing athletes to continue competing.

When the IOC learned about this, a scandal erupted that engulfed Marion Jones and other U.S. stars. While working at those Games, Ljungqvist criticized the USOC. And America responded.

“I got a direct call from the responsible people at the White House, the drug czar, who told me that they understood our problems in Sydney,” he said. “They said, ‘Please, calm down, if you can, and we’ll do something.’ And they did. They created USADA (the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency).”

The U.S. track record since then, Ljungqvist says, is impressive. He cites the BALCO scandal of the mid-2000s and the Armstrong saga as evidence.

“They were very thorough, very serious and very professional,” Ljungqvist said of the investigations.

That can’t be said of every country, and part of the key to USADA’s success is that it is completely separated from the governing bodies which have a vested interest in seeing their athletes succeed. It’s also difficult, Ljungqvist explained, to find leaders who are willing to do the unpopular work of anti-doping enforcement, and to stand up to the athletic establishment if it turns out their athletes are cheating.

Travis Tygard, the current head of USADA, has received death threats since submitting the several-hundred page evisceration of Armstrong. Catching the decorated cyclist is something that leaders in the UCI, cycling’s international federation, could never do; participants in the small world of elite racing “all know each other … and protect each other,” Ljungqvist said, and some administrators have even participated in doping in the past.

Regardless of USADA’s victory in the Armstrong saga, Ljungqvist said, there’s still doping in the U.S., and the country has a long way to go before it reaches the status of Sweden in the realm of clean sport. But it’s something to aspire to.

“At the 2004 Olympics, when Sweden got three gold medals in athletics in a single weekend — Stefan Holm in high jump, Christian Olsson in triple jump and Karolina Klüft in heptathlon — the IAAF was so happy,” Ljungqvist said. “They said, ‘This proves that you can get a gold medal without doping.’ ”