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Case puts light on gray area of doping

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / August 9, 2009

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The case of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and his positive test for performance-enhancing drugs is casting a harsh light - again - on the risk athletes run by taking muscle-building supplements of uncertain provenance.

Two of the nation’s leading specialists on sports doping said yesterday that at least one over-the-counter product legally available in 2003 when Ortiz took his urine test could have yielded a positive result for steroids. But even though that supplement - called 19-norandrostenedione - was not banned by Major League Baseball until the start of the 2004 season, athletes should have known better than to use it, one sports medicine doctor said. After all, home run king Mark McGwire had been caught several years before with a similar compound, a discovery that forever tar nished his crown.

“We went out of our way to advise athletes that this phenomenon with supplements was going on and that they should really not be taking them because they ran the risk of testing positive,’’ said Dr. Gary Wadler, chairman of the Prohibited List and Methods Subcommittee of the World Anti-Doping Agency, an independent body that regularly publishes a list of performance-enhancing compounds that it believes should be banned.

“Clearly, athletes should be aware there’s no magic bullet, there are no short cuts. Taking supplements as a way of a short cut is filled with dire consequences.’’

A contrite Ortiz appeared at a news conference at Yankee Stadium yesterday and categorically denied ever using steroids to juice his performance on the field. But he acknowledged using “legal supplement, legal vitamins’’ earlier this decade - and offered a mea culpa to fans.

“I definitely was a little bit careless back in those days,’’ Ortiz said. “I’m not here to make any excuses or anything. I used a lot of supplements and vitamins. I even had companies sending me supplements back then.’’

He provided no specifics on what he took then, and by describing the substances as over-the-counter supplements and vitamins, he cast the net so broadly that it could include everything from run-of-the-mill minerals to the powders and liquids gym rats consume to build bigger biceps.

But in interviews, Wadler and Dr. Harrison G. Pope Jr., a steroid specialist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, repeatedly returned to Ortiz’s potential use of 19-norandrostenedione.

Neither physician has direct knowledge of what the Sox star was using. But Michael Weiner, incoming executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, said that at the time the testing was performed in 2003, supplements now banned by baseball did not appear on the list of forbidden compounds. Perched next to Ortiz at the midday press conference, Weiner specifically cited the family that includes 19-norandrostenedione.

Taken as a pill, 19-norandrostenedione produces a cascade of chemical byproducts once inside the body. Among them: a derivative of a steroid called nandrolone, which can yield a positive result for steroids in laboratory testing.

“It would probably be safe to say that the vast majority of over-the-counter products would not lead to a steroid being in the urine,’’ said Pope, director of McLean’s Biological Psychiatry Laboratory and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “But if you or I were to take 19-norandrostenedione and then give a urine sample the next morning, it would contain a genuine illegal anabolic steroid, nandrolone.’’

Wadler agreed that it was “entirely feasible’’ Ortiz and other baseball players used the supplement, purchasing it legally in stores that peddle nutrition products. It is a chemical cousin of androstendione, the substance seen in McGwire’s locker.

In 2004, President Bush signed a law banning all members of the andro family, citing health concerns.

The law went into effect in January 2005.

Body builders swore by the muscle-enhancing powers of 19-norandrostenedione, said Pope, who has interviewed them. And, according to New York media accounts this week, so did some baseball players. Representatives of the baseball commissioner’s office and the players’ union said they believe that eight of 104 players who are alleged to have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs used 19-norandrostenedione. The 2003 testing was, in effect, an experiment to determine whether Major League Baseball needed to implement routine drug screening.

Athletes and dietary supplements have made for a combustible - and even deadly - brew. In February 2003, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died during spring training, at the age of 23. A medical examiner determined that the herbal supplement ephedra, a favorite of dieters and elite athletes alike, was at least partially culpable.

By the end of the year, federal health authorities had banned the compound, the first time the US government had outlawed a dietary supplement.

Baseball players can still take a hormone called DHEA, although Pope said it was unlikely that substance would generate enough of a steroid byproduct to cause a positive screening test.

Still, in a recent interview, Travis T. Tygart, chief executive officer of the US Anti-Doping Agency, faulted Major League Baseball - as well as the players’ union - for continuing to allow players to use DHEA, which remains legal.

“DHEA is a huge hole in the union’s position,’’ said Tygart, whose agency oversees efforts to eliminate doping from the Olympics.

“It’s been prohibited by almost every other sports league: the NFL, Olympics, golf.’’

Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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