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Drug Testing Starts for Master Athletes

Older competitors undergo random screenings at events

Older competitive athletes now have something new to face: random drug screenings.

Athletes are subject to urine testing at all World Masters Athletics international events. The screening occurred for the first time last week at the USA Masters Outdoor Track & Field's Championships in Berea, Ohio.

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Age and health conditions pose unique concerns, since many older athletes need hypertension medicine, hormone replacement therapy or other prescription remedies that can skew test results and require special exemptions.

"The pressure and desire to win at any cost is an issue in all age groups and levels of competition, and as a result, there certainly have been cases where older athletes have tried to cheat their fellow competitors by using performance-enhancing drugs," says Annie Skinner, spokeswoman for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in Colorado Springs, Colo., the national anti-doping organization for the U.S. Olympic movement.

Anabolic steroids and erythropoietin — a man-made version of a growth hormone — are among the most widely used banned substances, says Don H. Catlin, M.D., CEO of the nonprofit Anti-Doping Research Inc. and founder of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory. The extent of this type of doping remains difficult to determine because it can only be detected by blood screening, which is more expensive and performed less frequently than urine sampling.

"Even athletes with disabilities use drugs," says Catlin. "Sad, but true. I suspect use is less in the over-50 crowd, but without testing, we have no way to know."

When athletes are found to be doping, they face sanctions ranging from a reprimand to a four-year suspension. Repeated offenses can lead to a lifetime ban, says Terence O'Rorke, spokesman for the World Anti-Doping Agency in Montreal.

Any athlete who requires medication containing an agent noted among the agency's prohibited substances and methods can apply for a therapeutic use exemption, O'Rorke adds.

"The list of banned substances basically includes just about any prescription medication you can possibly ingest," says Jill Geer, spokeswoman for USA Track & Field.

But hopefully, with older adults "you can rely on people to compete on their honor," Geer says. "At the same time, it's almost part of human nature to try to gain every advantage possible. For some people, that might mean cheating, even on a masters level, when what's at stake is probably a medal or a ribbon or — perhaps on the highest level — a record."

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Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.

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