2/14/2008 Tom Murse

Clean Sweep

Larry Bowers '72 applies science and conscience to help the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Ensure Fair Play

Golf is singular among sports in that it relies on the athletes to penalize themselves. There are no referees. No judges. No umpires. Nudge your ball accidentally and you’re expected to tack on a stroke—even when no one else sees your mistake. “When you cheat in golf, the only person you’re cheating is yourself,” Bobby Jones famously said after blowing the 1925 U.S. Open—a tournament he lost because he penalized himself one stroke for a seemingly minor infraction, a gaffe no one else witnessed. 

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Golf’s code of honor seems a rather naïve and quaint way of trying to foster the ideals of sportsmanship and fair play in an era that has given us Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Floyd Landis. But that code embodies the essence of integrity in competition, and—not surprisingly—it is the very trait that endears the Gentleman’s Game to Larry Bowers ’72, a chemist who has devoted the last seven years to tracking down cheaters for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

“Calling penalties on yourself—that to me is an integral part of playing the game. That is the essence of sport,” Bowers says. If athletes in the rest of American sports could be trusted to police themselves as Bobby Jones did at Worcester Country Club, Bowers might still be working in academia, where he spent nearly three decades. 

Instead the internationally renowned expert on performance-enhancing drugs, seeing the country’s reputation evaporate in the eyes of the world, placed himself at the forefront of a high-stakes race with the shadowy business of doping—a marathon-like struggle to clean up U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and Pan American athletes. 

“I thought, ‘This is the one last chance,’” says Bowers. “If it fails, people are going to throw up their arms and say,  ‘See? Nothing works,’ and just give up.”

Enforcing the Rules

So who’s winning? The cheaters or Bowers and USADA?

Since its creation by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2000, USADA, which is based in Colorado Springs, Col., has performed 45,753 drug tests on 10,200 athletes across 71 Olympic, Paralympic and Pan-American sports—from bowling to boxing, speed skating to sailing, water polo to wrestling—according to statistics provided by the agency. But among that seemingly large pool of athletes, only 197—mostly track-and-field athletes, cyclists and weightlifters—have been caught doping. In other words, only about two out of every 100 athletes have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. 

That statistic raises some interesting questions: Have athletes gotten wise? Are they cheating and getting away with it? Or is the mere existence of USADA’s testing program acting as a deterrent?

Probably all of the above, Bowers acknowledges.

“We’re not catching 100 percent,” he says. “I suspect it’s just like the police out there with radar. They don’t catch everybody who speeds. The objective of both of those exercises is to be a deterrent.”

USADA tests by collecting urine from athletes—during training camps and competitions, and “out of competition,” a friendly term for when someone from USADA shows up on the doorstep of an athlete’s home and says, “Today’s the day you need to produce a sample.” The unannounced visit is, in fact, how the agency does most of its testing.

Bowers drafted the procedures used for collection of samples and how they should be handled in the laboratory. But now, as the senior managing director for technical and information resources, his role is anticipating the introduction of new performance-enhancing drugs—anywhere between two and 10 hit the market every year, he estimates—for which there are, obviously, no tests. There are already hundreds of banned substances for which the agency tests.

“One of the biggest differences between pre-USADA and post-USADA is that, before, people involved with the anti-doping effort would meet four times a year, over a weekend, and talk about what might be out there,” Bowers says. “That was the extent of what was going on. Since USADA, we spend a lot of time reading scientific literature, trying to pay attention to the major physiological things you could affect and keeping an eye on those areas.”

For example, USADA has begun looking into potential abuse of a compound found in red wine, resveratrol, which may boost aerobic capacity by improving the body’s ability to consume oxygen. “My opinion is that oxygen transport is one of the most effective ways to improve your performance,” Bowers says. “So how serious is this? Does it work? Let’s talk to mitochondrial experts to see if it can be abused, let’s take a close look at what’s going on in mitochondria. That never happened in the pre-USADA era.

“It’s an example of, while we may not be ahead of the athletes, at least we’re thinking. We’re in closer proximity to them,” Bowers says.

Bowers’ biggest worry is a potential explosion of new drug compounds; it would be virtually impossible for an outfit with fewer than 40 employees and a $9 million annual budget—most of which comes from the U.S. government—to develop tests for hundreds of new performance-enhancing substances.

Case in point: selective androgen receptor modulators, or SARMs, which can simulate the effects of anabolic steroids but eliminate the side effects, such as swelling of the prostate gland and, potentially, cancer. 

“These guys have been able to tweak these SARMs to not cause the growth of the prostate but cause the growth of muscle,” Bowers says. “Part of what we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hmm. That could be an interesting problem for us.’ But if there are 10 new compounds that can do that, then our list has expanded greatly. At some point it’s going to be financially impossible to test.” 

Bowers and USADA try to work with pharmaceutical companies to predict abuse of their drugs by athletes. They have asked some firms to put “markers” on their drugs to make them easier to detect in urine tests. But not all agree to do so. “We’re a small player, and for a company to do that versus trying to treat a disease, it’s a minor consideration,” Bowers says.

Lending a Hand 

Bowers’ expertise is highly sought-after. The Internal Revenue Service asked him to go along with its criminal investigation team on a 2003 raid of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, the California-based firm whose acronym—BALCO—has become synonymous with the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. The lab’s owner and three others were later charged with distributing the drugs to elite track-and-field athletes and professional football and baseball players. The raid also produced the evidence that laid the groundwork for Major League Baseball homerun king Barry Bonds’ indictment, in November, for lying to a grand jury about his use of steroids.

Bowers is not permitted to talk specifically about the evidence because the case is ongoing. “What I can tell you is that I was there at the request of the IRS Criminal Investigation team to assist them with technical issues, and that’s what I did,” he says. “That ranged from providing them some advice on chemicals they might have found—whether they are involved in doping, whether they were dangerous or not.”

Bowers was also on USADA’s witness list in the agency’s case against 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, whose level of testosterone to epitestosterone tested abnormally high after his stunning comeback in Stage 17 of the race—a comeback some observers say he couldn’t have made without doping. Landis asked a USADA review board to throw out the doping charges, claiming a French lab botched his urine tests. The cyclist was the first U.S. athlete accused of doping to insist on a public hearing, and the nine-day affair in May marked the first time in USADA’s history its rules and procedures were scrutinized in such a high-profile setting. 

“Clearly Mr. Landis’ tactic was to try to raise the specter that the system is not fair, and I think some of the things he did or some of the things he saw are an indication that the system is fair,” Bowers says. “He asked for an open hearing, and he got an open hearing. We didn’t comment on anything he said during the arbitration process. 

“The fact that he lost the case is an indication that when thoughtful people are presented with the information, they come to the same conclusion we did,” Bowers says.

In others words, that Landis cheated. He was stripped of his Tour title in September 2007 after the arbitration panel ruled 2-1 in favor of USADA.

Not that Bowers is gleeful. Busting an athlete for doping brings mixed emotions. 

“It definitely gives me no pleasure to ever see any athlete test positive. They’ve made a bad decision, and it does definitely have an impact on sport. You’ve cheated. And so anytime somebody wins by cheating, to me that’s not what sport is all about,” he says. “Sport isn’t really—even at the entertainment level—just about winning. It’s how you win.

“The place where gratification comes from is when you hear from athletes, saying thanks, ‘If we can get those guys off the playing field, then we don’t have to take performance-enhancing drugs.’ They have a pretty good idea of who’s cheating and who’s not. Somebody who puts on 20 pounds of lean muscle mass over the summer, that’s not something that happens naturally,” Bowers says. 

Gaining Respect

After graduating from F&M, Bowers earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Georgia. He then completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center. Bowers held faculty positions at the University of Minnesota and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. 

Bowers, who lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Janet Pietruch Bowers ’73, was also the deputy director  of the Athletic Drug Testing Laboratory at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

He says the perception of American athletes has improved since 2000 because of USADA’s work.

“I think that in terms of the world, before USADA, there was this feeling that maybe the U.S. athletes were just the best people at deceiving doping controls and that U.S. athletes really weren’t clean,” Bowers says. “But the world’s opinion of our athletes has changed; they don’t think U.S. athletes are doping. I think we’re helping the U.S. Olympic brand worldwide. People understand it doesn’t matter whether you’re Tyler Hamilton or Floyd Landis, or whether you’re somebody down the ranking list. If we test you and you’re positive, we’re going to handle those things in a professional and transparent way.”

Bowers is, not surprisingly, an avid sports fan, which explains a lot about his motivation at USADA.

“I view sport in a lot of ways as just a microcosm of life. It’s not just athletes who cheat,” he says. “If you look at Enron, you had some people there who made very poor ethical and moral decisions, and you ended up with a lot of other people paying the price for that. My feelings about playing by the rules and being a good citizen and treating other people with respect—all of those things are important not only in sport, they’re important in life. Sometimes sport gets to set the ideals for the rest. Hopefully it percolates not just through sport but through other parts of society.” 

Tom Murse writes for the Lancaster New Era in Lancaster, Pa.  
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