Are Parents Becoming Pushers, US Coaches Asked

[Photo: Aniko Kovacs]
[Photo: Aniko Kovacs]

American swim coaches gathered for their annual conference in New Orleans have received a dire warning about the suspected use of banned substances, including Human Growth Hormone, among young athletes in the United States as a consequence of a social fashion among the swimmers’ parents to use drugs forbidden in sport in their pursuit of youthful looks.

That swimmers are taking risks with supplementation in the form of energy drinks at youth meets across the US seemed to come as little surprise to at the meeting of members of the American Swimming Coaches Association as Executive Director John Leonard raised the lid on the nature of trash found in the empty seats at the end of sessions at a variety of age meets this summer past.

Leonard named some products, some that are banned for under 16s in certain parts if the world, and noted the high number of empty asthma inhalers in the stands after meets. He invited members to take a trawl of the stands at their local meets to assess the level of a problem. He extended the thought down to the deep end when he said that while he had no direct of young swimmers taking HGH, the issue was not only real but should be considered a “game-ender”. He told fellow coaches:

“We have to have this on our radar screen. Parents are promoting the idea that there is a magic bullet … its a slippery slope.”

He then cited the trend that raised an alarm bell among coaches in the US. National Age Records had existed in the US since the late 1950s and often reflected the high standards of extraordinary individuals. “To break a NAG you probably have to be a genetic freak because that was what those who set them were,” said Leonard. “I use the term freak in the nicest sense: they are young people who come with natural physical advantages.”

He those posed a disturbing question: “Did something suddenly [change] 10 or so years ago …  because we’re in a place now where we have 4 to 5 times as many genetic freaks as in the past?” He thought not, adding: “In every community in this country, you can get HGH easily.”

“Parents all over the place are taking HGH: its the fountain of youth – right up until it kills ya’,” added Leonard.

“Your skin looks better, you have more interest in sex, more ability in sex, your muscle tone is better, fat melts away. HGH is everywhere all over South Florida: you can walk outside this building and buy HGH.”

True, it seems. I walked down the road from the conference past billboards telling me that my “best is yet to come through the science of healthy ageing”. The evidence was a picture of a generation-buster of a bloke who appeared to have the head of the grandpa he was supposed to be but the body of his 25-year-old grandson, a strapping lad leaning on a mean two-wheeler, blue sky beyond just to enhance the notion of cool youth running. A local pharmacist showed me a couple of products that would do the trick and a third that appeared to sell itself as a gene therapy.

Well now, perhaps my days of doing 10x400IMs needn’t be behind me after all. On the other hand, I told the assistant, it might be good to return home to a family who recognised me. She looked at me as if about to ask me to lie down on a sofa and talk about my childhood. I gave her a wrinkly smile and left the store feeling fairly sprightly on my way back to the scene of inquiry.

“We have a problem: its an age group problem being driven by parents who think that if its ok for them its ok for their kids,” said Leonard.

“This is a game-ender. If we start having parents giving magic bullets to kids, its the end of age group swimming as we know it.”

It seems that Leonard is far from being alone when it comes to perceiving a serious threat. Florida SunSentinel and former Washington Post reporter, Amy Shipley, conducted research of late that “found that too many parents of South Florida high school athletes are condoning their children’s use of performance-enhancing drugs”, according to the paper.

In a four-month investigation, the SunSentinel (not with any direct reference to swimming)  found:

  • Physicians from Miami to Vero Beach said parents have requested prescription-only drugs to make their young athletes bigger and stronger even when the children display no medical need for them.
  • More than six dozen South Florida high school students or recent graduates interviewed by the newspaper said they used hormones or steroids for strength-building, or knew others who had.
  • Some of the young people and three physicians said parents knew of their teens’ drug use or supplied the drugs.
  • Several local coaches and trainers said parents told them they were seeking performance-enhancing substances to give their young athletes an edge.

Read the rest of the worrying report by Shipley

It prompted the SunSentinel to run an editorial in which, concerned at the rise in use of performance-enhancing drops (PEDs) it calls in the Sunshine State “to reinstitute the random testing of student athletes”.

Cost of anti-doping testing

A 2007 pilot project cost $100,000 to test just 600 athletes. Which takes us to what could happen next if USA Swimming International Relations Committee manage to persuade USADA officials and experts in high throughput testing to sit round a table and thrash out a way of introducing a testing regime that can mass-test for 22 cents per analysis rather than for a cost of $90 or so every time an athlete pees in a bottle.

If doping is big business, then so too has anti-doping joined the league of big budgets over the past two decades, with lawyers, scientists, labs and costly processes part of a new industry.

WADA, USADA and international federations have a bullet to bite

The number of positive tests in all sports in the world this year is around 450, with many of those involved aged 14 to 19 and not big-medal contenders for the biggest of events. Is it really likely, then, that a result of ‘0’ positives at every major meet, year in and year out, was a true reflection of the state of doping use? And if not, where is the testing regime going wrong?

Part of the problem is that the picture we receive is not complete, sources told For example, many of the tests taken for swimming’s World  Championships in Barcelona this summer do not extend to searching for HGH, while politicians have a say in what is tested for as the holders of the purse strings. So the ‘nil’ positives is relative to the notion of finding only what you seek.

Is the truth masked?

Leonard noted, correctly, that a high number of positives returned in countries such as Russia were for old-style steroids of late. Why? Perhaps because those involved are using old drugs to test masking agents on younger and lesser athlete who are dispensable if caught, some have ventured to suggest.

An obvious solution is to raise the efficiency of testing so that each analysis does not cost an enhanced arm and a leg. High Throughput Testing is so much cheaper that it would allow far wider and more regular testing to identify a problem. Once a problem shows up, they further analysis would be required and the sample in question would pass to the “expensive” end of the business, HGH and every else on the tick list.

There is a growing body of people in sport who believe that WADA, national anti-doping agencies and international federations should jump at the chance of becoming more efficient while saving money.

In the US, the first step would be for USADA to accept an invitation to sit down with high throughput experts in January next year and consider that very question. Should they do so, they will have taken a step in the right direction when it coms to proving that clean sport is worth more than politics, power and the big business and budgets that some believe have become part of the doping/anti-doping habit.



“For example, many of the tests taken for swimming at the World Championships in Barcelona this summer do not extend to searching for HGH”

I’d be curious as to the details of why all of them weren’t tested for HGH. They’ve been using a scientifically sound test since 2004. How do they decide who is tested for it and who isn’t?

Swimming Mom

Do they only do urine tests at these meets and for athletes in between meets? I have heard that some of the drugs can only be detected in blood tests, is this true? Hence, quite a few not being caught?

Craig Lord

Swimming Mom: No, they do urine and some blood. Yes, some things can only be detected with blood … the biological passport relies on seeing abnormalities in a ‘blood’ profile, for example… whether urine or blood, the lab is then instructed to test from a list of things… tests can de conducted to search for all things on the list but the costs of the analysis goes up and authorities can ask labs to test for A, C D and but lave out F, G H and X (doesn’t quit work like that but just to give you an idea of the type of mechanism)

Craig Lord

KeithM: It is possible that none of them were tested for HGH… I understand that ‘many’ were not… I can’t say how they decide which test is “full” and which is “selective”, so to speak.


I find it disturbing and disappointing that John Leonard implies that there is a correlation between the rise of NAG records and child doping.

Perhaps there are more genetic beasts because USA Swimming has seen a 45% growth in membership over the last 10 years. Perhaps there are more records because of the increase in full time coaching positions (as opposed to part time or volunteer coaches 10 years ago). Perhaps there are more records because of the increased sharing of knowledge and coach education.

Craig Lord

Coach: I think the things you mention are real and have an impact (and I have seen papers with John Leonard’s name on them noting as much) but I don’t think they are as significant as the kind of advances we are starting to see … the numbers are yet to be confirmed and it will be interesting to see if they confirm a tidal shift … the first draft I’ve seen indicates something that might well be described as an off-the-chart rise … Amy Shipley’s research is disturbing and although not directly liked to swimming raises a cultural problem, and such things tend to spill beyond their own shores… swimming is not exempt from general trends. I believe that it is ASCA’s job (and that of all organisations with a responsibility as guardians of very young people) to watch for warning signs and raise issues. The proliferation of world (world juniors, youth olympics etc) meets for which national teams are selected etc is also raising pressure for programs to get their kids to perform earlier, I believe.

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