Nandro and the Beak

Petr Korda's Steroid Scandal

by Ed Toombs
January 1999
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    Dring the holiday season, the news came over the wire that Petr Korda had tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone during Wimbledon, six months earlier. It seemed like at the time like a joke in very poor taste. Petr Korda is perhaps the least muscular athlete on tour, and the last player one would have ever suspected of bulking up with steroids. How could the skinny player known as "The Human Toothbrush" possibly be a a drugs cheat?

    But as more details came in, it became clear that this was not just some Associated Press employee's way to have fun during a slow news period. The veteran Czech star had become the centre of the biggest doping case in tennis since Mats Wilander and Karol Novcek tested positive for cocaine in 1995.

    Although Korda's appeal did not reverse the test results, the 1998 Australian Open champion did manage to convince the International Tennis Federation (ITF) that he did not knowingly use nandrolone. He escaped a suspension because of "exceptional circumstances", and was let off with what amounted to a slap on the wrist: the ATP points as well as the prize money he won at Wimbledon were taken from him. But Korda's claim that he did not know how nandrolone was found in his system, as well as the surprising lightness of his penalty, raise many questions.

An aerial view of Petr Korda's celebrated (drug-enhanced?) scissor kick

What is nandrolone?

    Nandrolone is an anabolic steroid derived from the male hormone, testosterone. It has some legitimate medical uses, such as the treatment of major burns, malnutrition and osteoporosis. However, nandrolone's notoriety as a performance-enhancing drug is its primary claim to fame, and its use is banned by almost all athletic bodies, including the professional tennis organisms and the International Olympic Committee.

    Athletes who resort to nandrolone do so for various reasons. The drug is believed to increase muscle mass, ease the pain and strain caused by intensive training, and hasten recovery from injury. This latter point raised the most suspicions in Korda's case, as the Czech was struggling with an injured foot at the time he tested positive. Nandrolone is taken despite the well-publicized side effects caused by steroids, including headaches, acne, infertility and cancer.

   Since the use of nandrolone in the athletic community has been an open secret for many years, testing bodies have developed means of detecting the drug, based on a study of the subject's urine sample. 

    Because of the presence of effective tests, it had been believed that the more doping-savvy athletes were slowly abandoning nandrolone in favour of newer drugs that can be more easily camouflaged from the authorities. But a number of nandrolone-positive tests have been popping up in the last two years, probably because of more rigorous and frequent testing. High-profile cases in the cycling world in 1998 involved Frenchmen Philippe Gaumont and Laurent Desbiens, as well as Italian mountain-bike champion Paola Pezzo (Pezzo was not suspended by the Italian Olympic Committee). Sri Lanka's sprint star Susanthika Jayasinghe tested positive for nandrolone in April 1998: she was not suspended by her country's authorities, but is still awaiting a decision on her case from the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

Nandro and tennis

    "L'affaire Korda" is not the first nandrolone case in tennis. There have been at least two other positive nandrolone tests to hit the sport. The inconsistent way in which the sport has dealt with them is sending very mixed messages to the tennis community, as well as to the International Olympic Committee, which has repeatedly cited tennis as one of the sports that needs to get tougher on doping.

    In 1997, Spanish player Ignacio Truyol was suspended for one year by the ATP after testing positive for nandrolone and a banned stimulant, Pemoline. Like Korda, Truyol claimed he did not know that he was administered steroids. At the time, the ATP argued that the player's ignorance was irrelevant to the case. "The player was found in violation of the anti-doping rule. It's the responsibility of every player on the tour to know about the program and the substances that are on the banned list," said ATP spokesman Peter Alfano.

    But when steroid use has fallen under the jurisdiction of the ITF, the punishment has been less severe, and ignorance seemingly becomes a viable excuse. When American teenager Samantha Reeves tested positive for nandrolone in 1997, the ITF once more cited "exceptional circumstances" in refusing to sanction the player. Similarly to the Korda case, the ITF believed Reeves when she claimed she did not knowingly use nandrolone: "The Appeals Committee concludes that Ms. Reeves was naive and immature at the time of the offense, being 18 years old and having just joined the professional circuit as an amateur."

    Because Wimbledon is an ITF-sanctioned event, the ITF was responsible for all aspects of drug-testing at the tournament. One wonders: would the more hard-line ATP have dealt more harshly with Korda had the Wimbledon tests been in its, and not the ITF's, jurisdiction? The tennis authorities have to get their act together on the question of doping.

Korda's claims of innocence

    Since this story broke, Petr Korda has steadfastly denied that he ever knowingly took nandrolone, and affirmed that he is not a "drugs cheat". He obviously succeeded in advancing this view during his appeal before the ITF, which was sufficiently convinced by Korda's presentation that it decided not to sanction him with a suspension.

    There will be many who will doubt Korda's professions of innocence, and some have already spoken out. A sports medicine practitioner in Australia, Dr. Peter Larkins, went on record with strong doubts about Korda's claims. "How often have we heard the story 'I didn't know where it came from'?" Larkins asked. "Elite athletes have a lot of people wanting to help them and there is a lot of shaky advice around. Maybe he could have been that naive." Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash expressed his skepticism rather more crudely: "How the hell can you take steroids accidentally?" The reaction is understandable: it is rare to find cases of an athlete who tests positive for steroids and then freely admits his guilt!

    Is there any basis to Korda's protestations of ignorance? It's hard to say, but critics like Larkin and Cash may have been hasty with their comments.

    Unfortunately, the ITF did not issue its detailed findings, and hence we don't know exactly how Korda convinced the federation of his ignorance of any nandrolone use. A fact decried by Korda himself, as he feels a more detailed public statement by the ITF would help to vindicate him. However, a document released by Claude-Louis Gallien of the French Olympic Committee's Commission Nationale de Lutte contre le Dopage says that it is quite possible for an athlete to, as Cash puts it, take steroids accidentally. Gallien writes (my translation):

    It is relatively easy to have an athlete absorb preparations containing nandrolone, either orally, by sprays or during massages, without the athlete's knowledge. This can be done by preparing food or beverage mixtures, or by pretending that nandrolone adminstrations are "nutritional supplements" or authorized medications. It is also possible to inject the substance while misleading the athlete as to the nature of the product injected.
    It must be understood that many elite athletes display very immature behaviour with respect to their entourage. They tend to let themselves be managed and assisted in many aspects of everyday life, and they place great trust in those who attend to them, particularly in the area of physical preparation. In view of the financial interests at stake, and despite the surveillance of clubs, federations and officials, it is possible for dubious individuals to enter an athlete's entourage.
    Gallien's scenario is consistent with statements by Korda which suggest that he may have been guilty of trusting his entourage too naively. The Czech star told reporters earlier this month at the Doha tournament that although he tried to be conscientious about knowing the nature of treatments he was given, it is possible that he might have neglected to ask his medical staff some important questions at times. "When I have an injection I always ask what is in it, but sometimes you just have to trust the person who administers it."

    We don't know whether Petr Korda's claim that he does not know how nandrolone got into his system is true or false, and we may never know. But the scenario of unwitting nandrolone intake is at least plausible, and Korda certainly does not deserve the scorn heaped on him in some quarters by those unaware of the facts of this case.

    For me, there are two lessons to the Petr Korda nandrolone affair.

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