Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Valerie Adams: A clean champ in a dirty sport

Kiwi shot-putter doesn't have a hope of breaking the world record but she just might be the best "natural" female thrower ever

Olympians Valerie Adams (silver), Nadzeya Ostapchuk (gold) and Evgeniia Kolodko (bronze).  Photo / AP
Olympians Valerie Adams (silver), Nadzeya Ostapchuk (gold) and Evgeniia Kolodko (bronze). Photo / AP

Could it be that Valerie Adams is the only clean winner of the women's Olympic shot-put? And, could it be that she is the best natural female shot-putter there ever was?

She certainly isn't the longest. Her throws are not even in the vicinity. Her lifetime best throw of 21.24m sits in 185th place on the all-time list.

But analysis reveals a history of biological engineering and an illogical attempt to demonstrate through Olympic medals that eastern communism was superior to western democracy.

View shot-put's dark history - why drug-free athletes struggle to compete.

All of the throws above Adams' on the list were by athletes from the east, except a handful by throwers from China and Germany. And all bar three of the throws are from the steroids-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

The three exceptions the 79th, 130th and 143rd longest throws are from the last few weeks and were by Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus.

The last of those three throws was the 21.36m Ostapchuk heaved in London to blitz Adams and the rest and claim the Olympic gold medal, since officially stripped from her following positive tests on consecutive days to an old-style anabolic steroid. In the week since, the Belarusian has denied doping and, without providing evidence, claimed her former coach had framed her and that Adams had doped in the past.

In examining the questions at the head of this story, we need to make some assumptions. The first is that Adams is clean.

There is no suspicion she isn't, despite Ostapchuk's slur.

But because of the history of the shot-put and her status as Olympic and world champion she is targeted by Drug Free Sport New Zealand.

Its director Graeme Steel confirmed she had never failed a test. Adams has said she provided 16 samples in the past year.

She speaks out against doping, having been robbed of a place in the final eight at her first Olympics (Athens, 2004), aged 19, when the Russian winner turned out to be on the steroid stanozolol.

Assumption number two is that the winning eastern bloc shot-putters of the 1970s and 1980s were on steroids. Though anecdotal, the evidence is overwhelming.

The clearest insight into the period comes from documents left in the offices of the Stasi, East German's secret police, after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Drugs, dates, doses, side-effects were all detailed.

The programme began in the late 1960s with athletes of each sex and as young as 10. It met immediate success. The country of 17 million collected nine golds at the 1968 Olympics, 20 four years later and in 1976 doubled it again to 40.

Its IOC-approved laboratory in Dresden checked to ensure the drugs could not be detected before athletes left for competition abroad. A few were caught, however, including the shot-putter who still holds the Olympic record, Ilona Slupianek. She was banned for a year in 1977, three years before she set the Olympic mark with a distance that even a doped Ostapchuk was more than a metre shy of 32 years later. Even more remarkable is that Slupianek reportedly weighed 93kg, compared to Adams' 120kg.

The side-effects of loading young women with male steroids was severe.

There have been trials, convictions, apologies. Heidi Krieger, unwittingly doped from the age of 16, eventually had sex-change surgery. He is now known as Andreas Krieger and is married to a former swimmer from the same doping programme.

The first game-changer came with the fall of the wall and revelation of the state-run doping programme. Improved methods of detecting steroids and the introduction of out-of-competition testing followed. Distances fell. The world record (22.63m, compared to Adams' best of 21.24m) was set in 1988. Only four throws from the 1990s make the top 200 on the all-time list, and one of those was in 1998 by a Ukrainian who failed a drug test the next year.

Distances have risen in the new millennium but nothing near 22m and in that period, Adams is the only untainted Olympic champion.

The Belarussian who won in 2000 was banned three years later after a positive test to clenbuterol, the 2004 winner was disqualified after testing positive for stanozolol and now Ostapchuk has been found with another anabolic steroid, metenolone, in her system.

What is metenolone? Metenolone is an old-fashioned anabolic steroid found in the adrenal glands of pregnant domesticated cats and is used to treat anaemia. It is an androgen so-called because it develops male sexual characteristics and while it increases strength it also leads to a deeper voice, more hair and increased libido.

Because it is relatively easy to detect it is usually found in out-of-competition tests. It was seventh on the Wada list of anabolic steroids detected in 2010 with 40 instances, compared to 337 for stanozolol and 250 for nandrolone.

Ostapchuk has said she would have been a fool to take metenolone knowing she would be tested in London. Spikes in excretion of the drug, failure of a masking agent and human error are among possible explanations of why an athlete may be caught when they didn't expect to be.

"A lot of people take stuff and do stuff without knowing what is in it," the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency David Howman told the Herald. "They rely on others to say that this is safe or is not detectable."

Sometimes the doping chemist messes up, he said.

What benefit and how fast? Ostapchuk and Adams competed in Rome nine weeks before London. Adams threw 21.03m, Ostapchuk threw 19.58m. Ostapchuk then returned to Belarus. In Minsk in Belarus on July 18, she threw 21.58m, a 2m improvement in six weeks since Rome. So, what performance benefit might a steroid such as metenolone afford?

A paper published 1997 in the science journal Clinical Chemistry, reported a 9 per cent improvement in 10 weeks in an adult woman shot-putter in the East German doping programme after she was given daily doses of 10mg of the steroid Turinabol. In that time her throws improved from 17.0m to 19.5m.

The next year, when she was given three courses of the drug at higher doses, her performance improved 17 per cent and culminated in her beating the world record.

At the end of the third year (1970) on the doping programme the woman recorded a personal best of 22.22m which was 2m further than she had managed on 14 years of training without doping.

How trustworthy is Belarus? In its corruption ratings, Transparency International placed Belarus 143 of 183 nations, with a score of 2.4 out of 10 (New Zealand was ranked first with a score of 9.5).

Transparency International uses surveys and assessments regarding bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and the effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts in determining its ratings.

The country's President, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled for 20 years and is also head of Belarus's national olympic committee. He is often referred to as "the last dictator in Europe", following a violent crackdown on protests against a contested election in late 2010 and he was prevented from attending the Olympics because of an EU travel ban imposed, according to a UK government spokesman, "due to the part he played in the violations of international electoral standards".

Lukashenko had set a target of making the top 10 in the medal table at London (Belarus was 17th at Beijing). Despite its being a relatively poor country (its GDP is less than half New Zealand's) of 9.5 million people, the President said it could make a breakthrough in sport similar to that of China and South Korea.

The country paid each of its five Beijing gold medallists US$100,000 and in 2009 he announced that US$92.9 million ($114 million) would be provided for preparations for London.

Ostapchuk is said to have been tested three times in Belarus in the weeks before London, with all of them clear. The Belarus Anti-Doping Agency would have collected the samples and, as it doesn't have an IOC-accredited laboratory, sent them away for processing probably to Moscow.

This system also did not detect any anomalies (or if it did, did not report them) in the samples of two Belarusian hammer-throwers who were stripped of silver and bronze at the Beijing Olympics because of abnormal traces of testosterone.

They overturned the decision on appeal though the ruling stated that the verdict "should not be interpreted as an exoneration".

In May banned substances were found in the samples of one of the pair from the 2004 Olympics after it was retested. He was subsequently withdrawn from the London Olympics.

Ostapchuk is not the first female shot-putter from her country to win an Olympics and then be exposed as a drug cheat. Yanina Korolchik won in Sydney in 2000 but was banned three years later after testing positive to the anabolic steroid clenbuterol.

Belarus is "compliant" with the code of the World Anti-Doping Authority, meaning it has rules in place and appears to abide by them. But it is almost impossible to measure the quality of an agency or a laboratory, Howman told the Herald. "You can look at the quantity of [samples] analysed but that doesn't mean a lot either. Marion Jones [US track sprinter banned for systematic doping] never tested positive and she was tested more than 160 times."

The trajectories The pattern for an athlete who has not doped should show gradual and consistent improvement, with gains tailing off with age. The trajectory for Adams, 27, is consistent with this. Journalist Phil Gifford, who is writing Adams' biography, this week said Adams told him that the big improvements of her youth are long gone and the battle now is to eke out small gains. The graph for Ostapchuk, 31, is erratic by comparison which invites suspicion, but it was the dramatic improvement in the weeks leading to the Olympics that most raised eyebrows.

Is Adams the only clean Olympic women's shot put champion? Most likely, no. The 1984 Olympics were boycotted by eastern bloc countries and the winning distance was 2m short of that of the Olympics before and after, for example. And the event was won with a modest throw when it was introduced in 1948. The medallists then came from countries (France, Italy and Austria) that haven't figured since .

The first controversial figures were Ukrainian sisters Tamara and Irina Press (hurdles and pentathlon), who dominated the 1960 and 1964 Olympics and who critics said were men, hermaphrodite or had been injected with male hormones. Both sisters had left sport by the time gender verification was introduced in 1966.

But there is much to support a claim that Adams is the best natural shot-putter ever. She is clearly the best in the west and the best of her generation.

Her only rival has been Ostapchuk and now there is the smoking gun to lay beside suspicion.

Twenty-four women have thrown further than Adams in the history of the shot-put.

They came from Russia, East Germany, former Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, China and Germany.

The slur that Ostapchuk fired at Adams this week may be no more than the reaction of another cheat who cannot credit that the part-Polynesian girl from New Zealand is the real thing.

- NZ Herald

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