Italy's Strict Anti-Doping Laws Clash with Olympic Rules

Italy's tough anti-doping laws — steroid users can be imprisoned — are coming into conflict with Olympic rules as the Winter Olympics in Turin approach.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A dispute over doping rules at the upcoming Winter Olympics has reportedly been resolved. The head of the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, has been pushing for a moratorium on Italy's strict anti-doping laws during the Games. They're being held in Turin. Under that law, an athlete caught using performance-enhancing drugs faces possible criminal sanctions, even jail. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

It's the kind of scene that sends an Olympic-size chill through the halls of the IOC: Italian police descending on the athlete's village in Turin, a doping raid that ends with a bobsledder, a skier, a figure skater, God forbid, under arrest. Since 2000, Italy has had one of the toughest anti-doping laws in the world. Law number 376 says athletes can be jailed from three months to three years, although it hasn't happened yet. IOC officials cherish their Olympics and prefer to leave handcuffs out of the Games. Toward that end, they've been trying to convince Italian authorities that Olympic anti-doping laws that ban athletes from competition are sufficient.

Mr. DICK POUND (IOC Member): The sports system would prefer that the final arbiters on sport matters not be the criminal courts.

GOLDMAN: That's Dick Pound, a longtime IOC member and the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency. He's considered the world's sheriff on anti-doping matters. He never hesitates to speak out. Recently he enraged the entire National Hockey League by speculating that one-third of NHL players use illegal performance-enhancing drugs. So when Pound, as well as the IOC president, say Italy's anti-doping law is too harsh, skeptics wonder whether these men who preach zero tolerance of doping may be backsliding to the days when Olympic officials covered up drug use to avoid public relations nightmares. Again, here's Dick Pound.

Mr. POUND: I appreciate the difficulty of the communication image that this gives. No, we're--the IOC remains fully committed to getting drugs out of sports, but let's say you don't count a stroke in a game of golf. I mean, what do you do? You send somebody to jail or...

GOLDMAN: An absurd notion perhaps, but Olympic athlete Becky Scott thinks the act of taking a banned substance goes way beyond a little cheating on the golf course.

Ms. BECKY SCOTT (Olympian): In the world of sport and particularly Olympic sport, doping is very much a criminal offense. You're defiling the sponsors, you're defiling your fellow athletes and you're defiling the public.

GOLDMAN: Becky Scott comes at the issue with more awareness than most. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, Scott won a bronze medal in a cross-country ski race, but the gold and silver medal winners tested positive for banned drugs. And after a lengthy legal process, Scott was awarded the gold medal in the summer of 2004. She has watched the Turin doping controversy unfold and has been disappointed and frustrated by the IOC's attempts to, in her words, `soften Italy's anti-doping laws.'

Ms. SCOTT: The message the Italians are sending is, `Either you come to the Olympics clean, or you don't come.' And I don't really see what's wrong with that.

GOLDMAN: Scott wonders whether that message will get through following today's reported compromise. Officials say they'll announce details in three or four days. The Italian government's supervisor for the Turin Games says he's happy with the agreement. But if it eliminates the threat of jail time, critics like Becky Scott say the Games will have lost their best possible deterrent against doping. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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