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Drug Testing News

IOC: 'Mind' sports must drug test, too

By staff and wire reports
Wednesday, April 16, 2003

MONTREAL -- The World Anti-Doping Agency keeps an eye on weightlifters who can clean and jerk 500 pounds. It's also watching chess players who spend a lot of their time lifting one-ounce pawns and rooks.

As international sports adopt the first universal anti-drug code, participants in "mind sports" like chess and bridge find themselves being tested for the same banned substances as weightlifters and track stars.

"Obviously there's a huge difference between running a 100- meter dash and playing a game of chess," said U.S. Chess Federation President John McCrary. "There is a lot of concern that regulations taken from other sports are inappropriate for mind sports."

The guidelines, announced in Copenhagen last month, are designed to establish a uniform set of banned substances ranging from amphetamines to steroids. All sports federations involved in the Olympics are required to adopt the rules and penalties, which range from warnings to lifetime suspensions.

Although chess and bridge aren't Olympic sports, they're recognized by the IOC and hope to be included in the Games someday.

Last week, the International Chess Federation became one of the first sports to formally adopt the guidelines. Some players don't see the point, even though the organization gets $10,000 to $15,000 a year from the International Olympic Committee and many national chess federations get money from their country's Olympic committees.

"Chess is never going to be an Olympic sport, but the IOC will have us jump through a bunch of hoops, one of them being drug- testing," said three-time U.S. chess champion Joel Benjamin. "I really think it violates people's privacy without any rationale for it."

Benjamin said steroids and other performance-enhancing substances banned by the anti-doping agency don't help in chess, where brains are more important than brawn.

"It's a frightening thing for chess players that you could innocently end up in a situation where your career is ruined," said Benjamin, who was hired as a consultant by IBM Corp. when the company pitted one of its computers against world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

The IOC, however, has reason to be concerned about doping in other sports.

At last year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, two cross- country skiers were stripped of their medals after testing positive for an endurance-boosting drug, and an Alpine skier lost his medal after a banned stimulant was found in his system.

There were 11 positive drug tests at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, including three by Bulgarian weightlifters who were stripped of their medals.

Arnold Denker, the U.S. Champion from 1944-46 and a member of the Chess Hall of Fame, said drugs have never been a problem in his sport.

"I've been around chess for over 70 years and never saw anyone take drugs or even heard of someone taking drugs," said Denker, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "I think testing is a waste of time and a waste of money."

Mind sports aren't immune from drug scandals. Disa Eythorsdottir was stripped of a silver medal at the 2002 Bridge World Championships in Montreal because she refused to take a drug test. Eythorsdottir said she'd been taking diet pills and was concerned about a false result.

"What did they think I was taking, smart pills?" asked Eythorsdottir, an native of Iceland who now lives in Huntsville, Alabama. "The moment I invent smart pills, I won't have to play bridge for a living."

Emmanuel Omuku, executive director of the International Chess Federation, said he plans to lobby the World Anti-Doping Agency for an exception to the drug-testing rules.

"We believe that chess, as a sport, has a different perspective than other physical sports," Omuku said. "But for now, we have accepted it."

Despite opposition to the drug rules, Omuku said the International Chess Federation won't drop its affiliation with the International Olympic Committee. The connection is also important to the organization's 168 member federations, many of which receive funding from their governments through national Olympic committees or sports ministries.

Omuku, past president of Nigeria's chess federation, said his country's organization receives $60,000 to $100,000 each year from the government.

"By not signing up for the controls, we would probably put our relationship with the sports authorities in jeopardy," Omuku said.

Dick Pound, an IOC member from Montreal and chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said he isn't considering exceptions for chess or bridge.

"If they want to be treated as sports and not just as games, then they should accept the same rules as sports," Pound wrote in an e-mail.

Under the new rules, competitive chess and bridge players must even be wary of how much coffee they drink because caffeine is one of the stimulants banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The agency says "normal ingestion" won't cause a positive test, but warns that results can vary based on a person's size and metabolism.

Pound said there have been discussions about taking caffeine off the banned list. If that's done, Eythorsdottir doesn't see any other substances that pose a potential problem on the competitive bridge circuit.

"Bridge players on steroids," Eythorsdottir said. "Now that's a scary thought."