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Editorial: Athletes Cry Foul (Supplements) - Again

By Len Monheit
[email protected]

Run this by me agian.

How did we get from a baseball steroid scandal and possible perjury in U.S. Congressional testimony to finger pointing at the dietary supplements industry? Was it inevitable? And how do we break the cycle?

A positive steroid test on Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, in unconfirmed reports, has been connected to the anabolic steroid Stanozolol. Palmeiro, though, continues to deny any steroid use, consistent with testimony delivered to a Congressional Committee earlier this year. Any steroid found in his system, he therefore suggests, must be there by mistake, leading to the obvious conclusion that it was present as an impurity in a product he consumed, therefore presumably in a dietary supplement. If the steroid is, in fact, Stanozolol, then supposedly it did not come from a 'contaminated' product and was deliberately used. And from this, presumably, if it is Stanozolol that has been found, then Palmeiro's credibility and integrity are destroyed, and he and baseball both go into (pro)active crisis management mode. If the issue can in any way be tied to inadvertent use, Stanozolol or not, it most certainly will - 'Enter' the dietary supplements industry.

There are several issues here - the tarnishing of a popular sport, the effectiveness of baseball's testing and punishment system, the transparency of results disclosure and other program elements, the denial of use despite allegations in print that 'big name' players have used and continue to use steroids or precursors, against the backdrop that numerous issues in the past involving elite athletes have been reduced to either allegations of 'deliberate cheating' through the use of performance enhancing substances, or inadvertent ingestion of a positive testing substance (through supplementation) making the athlete a victim, and the supplements industry the criminal. This is a well trodden path, one the mainstream media are only too quick to trot along. There's a perverse logic to it, and inadequate defense available. And if for some reason this connection is challenged, 'experts' trot out the European lab analysis managed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that indicated that some 20% of supplements tested would have led to positive doping tests.

So what will we observe as reactions to the situation?

Baseball will tighten its policies and penalties. Athletes, (guilty or not) will continue to cry foul (supplements). Legislators will continue to examine DHEA. Schools will continue to restrict supplement access for students. The sports community will accelerate its stance of 'supplements (including vitamins) use at the athlete's own risk, and athletes, seeking that 'edge' will continue to use some products.

Fundamentally what will change? Will anything break this cycle? Do we all see why it must be broken, or are we going to continue to passively wait for the next issue and barrage and wonder why the media never get it right without taking matters into our own hands to create a better environment?

The NFL tried a program that involved finished product testing for banned substances to create an approved list of products that athletes could safely take. Other programs have been more or less successful including the Tennis tour, and athletes programs in both Australia and the Netherlands. I say more or less successful, because all these programs, while providing some products for athletes to take with 'reduced risk', do not provide athletes the access to the necessary supplements even sports nutritionists often agree are required in supplementation form, to improve recovery and manage the stress an athlete's body will take.

The knocks against the current programs are mostly two-fold. First, there is the issue of the cost for a relatively small market size. In some cases it is quite prohibitive for a manufacturer to participate. Secondly, there is the issue of critical mass, the need to get enough companies to participate to cover product availability needs. A third issue might be whether any program can absolutely and totally eliminate risk.

As far as cost is concerned, justifying the cost against a market consisting only of elite athletes is impossible. IT must be the broader pool of sports nutrition that must be engaged for program costs to be justified. It would be even better if the program cost could be justified against a larger market opportunity, perhaps the entire supplement-user community. Companies participating in these programs currently have a range of promotional leverage opportunities, most of them inadequate at this point to justify a critical mass of company participation.

That leads to the second issue - critical mass. For this issue to be fundamentally resolved, either credibility for the entire supplements sector must be established - through conclusive proof and active government enforcement, around the world, of all regulations for compliance, or, another solution must be found. To have two product categories containing 'certified' products available from three manufacturers in Australia does not solve the problem. Having a selection of products available, around the world, that cover a variety of categories ranging from nutrition bars to protein powders to vitamins to sports beverages to immune support products might solve the worst part of the problem.

Any consumer should, without any fear, be able to choose a vitamin from a shelf without fear of a positive doping test. Currently though, that fear (at least for athletes) is there and this is something that we, as an industry, need to understand. The same might hold true for other product categories as well.

Is there a way for high quality manufacturers to identify themselves and is there a mechanism where sports organizations will recognize companies which have shown the quality of their products? Is there a way to do this cost effectively and if so, will enough companies to create industry critical mass participate?

Is this a practical approach and would it be effective? And how bad is the problem anyway? Do we really care about a few athletes at the Olympics? I know we care about the media attention, mistrust and misinformation, but do we fundamentally care enough to do something about it?

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