The Front Row with John Leicester April 20, 2010
PARIS - It was a shock for tennis to learn that its anti-doping rules have a loophole large enough for a player caught with human growth hormones to waltz through. But a bright side, if there can be one, to the Wayne Odesnik case is that the embarrassing regulations might not be around for much longer.
ITF anti-doping manager Stuart Miller says the federation will revisit the rules that allowed Odesnik, an American who is 111th on this week's ATP rankings, to continue competing even after he pleaded guilty last month to importing HGH into Australia.
It might have been easier had Odesnik failed a doping test. In such cases, the international governing body of tennis can prevent players from competing while it investigates. But it can't for other suspected violations, like possession of a banned substance.
"Our rules say if - and only if - we detect a prohibited substance in a sample provided by a player will we impose a provisional suspension," Miller said in a telephone interview. "Clearly, there's a need to review that rule and there is no doubt that that will happen.
"I'm not going hide or run away from that, because clearly it is something that we need to look at."
Another crumb of comfort for the sport is that the modest amounts - 8 vials of 6 milligrams each - found in Odesnik's luggage by Australian customs agents don't seem big enough to suggest they were destined for resale to other players. The stash was seized in January, when Odesnik traveled for the Brisbane International and the Australian Open.
For a patient prescribed growth hormone because their own pituitary gland doesn't make enough of it, "this would be about a month's supply," says HGH expert Peter Sonksen, a professor of endocrinology at St. Thomas' Hospital and King's College in London. But "it wouldn't last long" for a cheating athlete who may inject slightly larger daily doses - for example to try to speed recovery from injury.
"So it's for personal use rather than as a 'pusher,"' Sonksen wrote in an e-mail exchange.
At the moment, HGH cheats have either to be stupid or unlucky to get caught, because the test to detect growth hormone is not that good. It requires that athletes give blood, which is more intrusive than urine samples. And it only detects HGH that was very recently injected. In six years of use, the test has led to a sports suspension for just one HGH user - a two-year ban given in February to British rugby league player Terry Newton.
"The window of detection is very, very short, it's expensive, it (the test) applies conditions to transport, you have to transport and analyze the samples within a very short period of time," Miller says.
So the ITF doesn't test for HGH. But that, too, may now change in the wake of the Odesnik case, if and when a better method becomes available, Miller says. World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman hopes improvements could be introduced late this year or early in 2011, by combining the current test with another developed by Sonksen and Richard Holt that can point to HGH use even several weeks after an athlete injected.
"We've got to look at possible tests for human growth hormone in tennis, there's no doubt we have got to consider it," says Miller. "At the moment it has some shortcomings and we are very, very hopeful that when the revised test is used and introduced we can utilize it to its fullest extent."
Christopher Lyons, Odesnik's lawyer based in Miami, won't comment on why the player took HGH into Australia. For possession, Odesnik could get a two-year ban from tennis, unless he can somehow cut a deal for a reduced suspension - which, from a close reading of the ITF's rules, doesn't seem massively likely.
"We are cooperating with the ITF and providing whatever information they are requesting to assist them in their investigation," Lyons said.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.