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Toughened drug testing protocols put gov't, sports leagues at odds

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Published : 2016-03-07 10:58
Updated : 2016-03-07 10:58

When a law giving the government full control of doping tests for all athletes passed the parliament last fall, it was with an attitude of grudging resignation that the professional federations accepted toughened protocols.

The Sport Promotion Act came into effect on Nov. 19 on the heels of positive drug tests in pro baseball, football and volleyball. By that time, though, baseball, the nation's most popular sport, had already wrapped up its regular season, and football, the second biggest pro sport, was nearing the finish line in its season, too.

These two leagues, along with volleyball, basketball and golf, will start feeling the full impact of the change this year. Earlier in February, the Korea Anti-Doping Agency formally announced it will oversee drug testing for all professional sports and determine penalties for violators, thereby taking over the reins from the likes of the Korea Baseball Organization, the K League and the Korea Professional Golfers' Association.

Leagues have had different sets of penalties for violators. For instance, the KBO, which started testing for banned substances in 2008, bans those who test positive for human growth hormone for 10 games. Players caught with stimulants will be suspended for 20 games. Finally, players who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs will be banned for 30 games. All second-time offenders are to be banned for 50 games, and third-time violators will be banned for life.

K League football, which started testing in 2009, hands down a 15-match ban on first-time offenders, and a one-year suspension for those who test positive for a second time. A lifetime ban is warranted for a third positive test.

The government proposed a one-year ban for the first offense in all sports and a two-year suspension for the second positive test. Third-time offenders in all sports will be banned for life.

Government-controlled drug testing is a touchy issue that has pro sports' representatives calling for more independence, while its proponents say transparency should take precedence and pro leagues can't be trusted to come down hard on their own athletes who violate anti-doping policies that are soft to begin with.

An official at the KBO said it was "unusual" for a government to set anti-doping policies.

"It's not as if we have any choice now," the official said, asking for anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the topic. "We simply have to follow the law."

The K League is "okay" with the government's approach. Following a board meeting on Jan. 18, the K League deleted from its rule book all clauses related to anti-doping policies and drug testing -- something other leagues haven't done or at least announced publicly -- in an apparent show of defiance.

Last October, a month before the new law came into effect, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism polled seven professional sports federations -- in baseball, football, volleyball, men's and women's basketball, and men's and women's golf -- on what they felt about the government's control of anti-doping policies. While the K League withheld voicing its opinion right away, the baseball, volleyball and basketball bodies all opposed the idea and demanded independence.

Rep. Park Hong-keun of the Minjoo Party had obtained these results from the ministry last fall. Through his secretary, Park declined to comment on this story, because he hadn't been able to follow up on the developments in the doping protocols, as the general elections are approaching. When he first got his hands on the relevant documents in October, Park did say he "couldn't understand" why professional leagues were against the whole idea.

"Compared to amateur sports, professional sports leagues have been quite lenient on their violators," Park said at the time. "Doping is directly related to the sports' popularity and their sustainability, but I think these leagues don't take this matter seriously."

Rep. Lee Elisa of the Saenuri Party, who proposed the bill on more rigorous doping tests in professional sports, said the new steps are designed to protect the athletes' own well-being, and not to ruin their careers.

"Only amateur athletes were subject to random tests by the KADA before, and pros who competed at the Olympics or the Asian Games didn't have to do the same," said Lee, a former world champion in table tennis and a long-time sports administrator. "If they test positive in international competitions, not only does it affect their careers, it also gives a bad name to our own sports science."

Lee echoed Park's sentiment that pro leagues have been too soft on their own athletes, and she also wanted to preserve the spirit of fair play.

"Why would the leagues feel upset when the KADA is offering to do everything for them?" Lee added. "It will save them money."

In another potentially controversial measure, the KADA will also begin blood tests on pro athletes to better be able to detect HGH.

Major League Baseball, which has long battled steroid use, only adopted in-season blood tests in 2013 -- players were subject to such tests in spring training the previous year -- after players had opposed them on privacy grounds. The National Football League followed suit in 2014, after three years of heated negotiations between the league and the players' association.

The prospect of blood tests here doesn't seem to have generated as much animosity. An official at the KBO revealed that some teams were actually in favor of blood tests, knowing they would help detect HGH.

The KADA said it won't go all-out on blood testing in the first year. Kenny Lee, director of the doping control division of the KADA, estimated "about 10 to 15 percent" of all tests will be of the blood variety.

"Pro sports don't do any blood testing, and we'll start testing for HGH this year," Lee said. "I don't think we'll do a lot of blood tests, but we may increase the number down the road."

The KADA lists 119 doping control officers, and 12 of them are certified medical laboratory technologists who can also act as blood collection officers. Since only the BCOs are permitted to collect blood samples for tests, a dozen officers may not be enough to conduct all the blood tests that the KADA wants to do -- not that it concerns the anti-doping body.

"We don't think we're short of BCOs now," Lee of the KADA said. "We plan on hiring 30 more DCOs, but we don't know yet how many of them will be certified medical technologists."