Gay Games Drug Testing Causes Concern Among AIDS Advocates

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 1, 2010

For the first time in its history, all participants in Gay Games VIII this summer in Cologne, Germany, will be subject to random testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Such an announcement might be considered as standard issue elsewhere - maybe with an eyebrow-raising "What took you so long?"

But this is the Gay Games. Think about it. We may have come a long way in fighting the AIDS epidemic, but to be gay still has an implication of a much stronger likelihood of HIV infection than other groups.

Organizers are bending over backwards to maintain that they are taking every possible precaution so that anyone taking one of the dozens of HIV meds on the market will not fail a drug test. They say they're even making special accommodations for HIV-positive athletes who sometimes use drugs banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

But critics contend that the policy goes too far. They worry that people with HIV will fail the tests, resulting in their disqualification.

As many as 12,000 athletes from more than 70 countries will be going to the ancient Northwestern German cathedral city for the games to be held July 31 to Aug. 7. It claims to have grown into the biggest sports and cultural festival in the world. The games are open to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, athletic skills, physical capabilities or physical condition.

Like the Olympics (with which it had a court fight until the decision to drop the "O" word), the Gay Games are held every four years. The first Gay Olympics event was held in San Francisco in 1982. Before it even began, however, the International and U.S. Olympic committees filed a lawsuit shortly before the games, contending that they had exclusive rights to use of the word.

The Federation of Gay Games is the governing body that sanctions the games, but the events themselves are run by a host organization after winning a bidding process. Cologne won the bid for 2010 games back in 2005. Most recently, Cleveland, Ohio, has won the right to host the next games.

The Games Formulates a Drug Policy

At Gay Games VII, held in Chicago in 2006, the FGG instituted an anti-doping policy that required random testing in only three competition categories: power lifting, body building and wrestling. The FGG approved random testing during Gay Games Cologne for all performance-enhancing substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The federation is making allowances for participants who take drugs containing the banned substances because of medical diagnoses, such as HIV. Such competitors must submit a medical form signed by their physician that lists the diagnoses, prescribed medications, their dosages and frequency, and the form of administration, such as pills or injections.

If a random drug test reveals anti-doping substances, a three-member medical review commission of physicians will examine the person's medical file. According to the FGG, the only grounds for disqualification will be if the level of the banned substance exceeds that of any prescribed medication.

Federation spokesperson Kevin Boyer told EDGE in e-mail that to avoid confidentiality issues, competitors with medical conditions can opt not to carry the forms with them when traveling to Germany or during the games.

"Participants who choose to be prepared to present the medical form can keep it in a safe location of their choice until (and only if) needed," Boyer said. "There may also be a postal address (to be confirmed) provided for those who don't wish to carry the form with them."

At the time of a random test, an athlete will receive instructions on where and when to present the medical form, he explained. The review commission's administrative officer will receive the form in a sealed, unsigned envelope and will write the athlete's sample collection code on it. There will be no other identifying information on the envelope.

The Biochemical Institute at the German Sports University in Cologne, one of the world's leading WADA drug-testing laboratories, will analyze the test samples. Testing costs are a part of the event's budget so the athletes will not have to pay for them. Boyer said the university is a Gay Games Cologne partner and is providing many venues at its Sportpark Muengersdorf campus.

Boyer also maintained that the federation adopted the anti-doping policy to promote inclusion. "For the first time, all athletes receiving any medical treatment for whatever reason will be able to participate in a drug-tested competition, with no fear of a doping violation," he contended.

Also for the first time, all athletes will be able to compete in the same division, regardless of medical status. "The FGG and Gay Games Cologne have worked together on the development of the policy, including the integration of expectations regarding drug testing from public authorities and athletes in Germany," Boyer reported.

"We recognize that the policy may not satisfy everyone (including those who would prefer a more restrictive policy), but we believe that the feedback mechanisms are both inclusive and representative, and we will continue to refine the policy based upon the 2010 experience."

'To apply something like this for our population is a waste of money. We're not the Olympics.'

Count Gene Dermody of San Francisco among those who have yet to be won over to the new policy. Dermody has been a two-time FGG president and a sports and technology officer, but remains concerned about the impact of drug testing on HIV-positive athletes.

He led development of the anti-doping policy used in the 2006 Chicago games and is wrestling coordinator for the Cologne games, representing Wrestlers WithOut Borders.

In a phone interview with EDGE, Dermody complained that members of the HIV community were not involved in formulating the Cologne anti-doping policy. WADA standards for anti-doping are too stringent and are designed for world-class athletes who compete in the Olympics, he added.

"That's primarily the profile for the research WADA has done," Dermody said. "To apply something like this for our population is a waste of money. We're not the Olympics. We're a mix of professional and amateur athletes. It's not necessary to have proven fairness, which is what drug testing is designed to do."

Dermody pointed out that other athletic events, such as the U.S. Open for wrestling, held in Cleveland in April, do not require drug tests.

He traveled to Cologne in 2007 and 2008 to try to persuade organizers not to implement the new policy, but failed.

Dermody and others are most concerned about drugs people with HIV take to combat the effects of body wasting, such as anabolic steroids, which contain testosterone, and others that are on the anti-doping list, such as those containing hormones and beta-blockers. Considering the breadth of the Anti-Doping Agency, there may end up being many exceptions granted.

Wrestlers WithOut Borders Chair (and EDGE San Francisco Editor) Roger Brigham reported that WADA does not recognize anabolic steroids to combat loss of appetite or facial wasting and maintains that the substance is used for cosmetic, not medical, purposes.

"Is the medical review commission going to allow that?" Brigham, an FGG delegate, asked in a phone interview. "That's not spelled out."

WADA also bars the use of marijuana, which physicians prescribe for people with HIV to increase appetite. Medical marijuana is legal in 14 states and six foreign countries, including Germany. Gay Games Cologne's policy on the issue is unclear.

Dermody and Brigham believe Gay Games Cologne should have left the anti-doping policy formulated for the 2006 games in place, since it did not consult the HIV community in developing the new one.

Hurting Those Who Should Be Helped Most?

There's also the question of whether the threat of going through drug testing will not turn off the very athletes most helped by strenuous, competitive exercise. Among those who believe sports are important for the well being of HIV-positive individuals is Louis Tharp, the openly gay coach of the West Point triathlon team.

His book Overachiever's Diary, is based on Tharp's daily correspondence and coaching plans for the West Point team. Tharp now heads TGI Healthworks, a firm that works with physicians and patients with chronic medical conditions. Tharp spoke to EDGE from Mexico, where he was coaching a recent West Point graduate entered in the 2010 Ixtapa ITU Triathlon Pan American Cup near Acapulco.

"Sport is important for people with HIV in the same way it's important for everyone," Tharp explained. "Sports unquestionably allow you to live a healthier life both physically and mentally." Athletics are exponentially more rewarding for people with HIV because "they are able to focus a tremendous of energy and devotion to their particular sport," he added. "That can only make you feel better."

Physical activity increases the amount of endorphin secretion in the brain, changes its neuro-pathways and the way it interacts with the body, Tharp pointed out.

While he strongly supports strict anti-doping rules for elite athletes, he believes accommodations should be made for people with chronic conditions. "We need to decide how we are going to administer these rules so the widest possible number of people can compete and the rules are fair and people respect them," Tharp said.

Whether and to what extent FGG tweaks their rules will depend on what happens in Cologne. If they discover a need for widespread testing; if some athletes object to being tested; and if HIV-positive athletes are stripped of any medals - then it's likely the debate will become as heated as any 100-meter relay.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].