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Just Say Yes: U.S.O.C. Hires a Maker of Nutritional Supplements and Requires Testing
date: 16-November-2005
editorial comment editorial comment
Here we have it again. Popping "natural" supplements to "win" is government-endorsed. Smoking of chewing natural stuff like opium, marijuana or cocaine for fun is bad.....

Departing from its traditional just-say-no stance toward nutritional supplement use by athletes, the United States Olympic Committee has taken a new approach: signing up a supplement manufacturer as an official supporter and requiring every batch of its product to be tested for banned performance-enhancing substances.

American bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic served a two-year ban for taking a supplement in 2002.
The U.S.O.C. recently reached the agreement with Ajinomoto, a Japanese food company, to market an amino-acid replacement product called Amino Vital. It is a cautious step into the minefield of the supplement business, one largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the cause of untold numbers of failed drug tests.

Which is why, for years, Olympic committees and anti-doping agencies have taken the hard-line approach of warning athletes away from all of them. But the U.S.O.C. polled its Olympic team in 2004 and discovered how futile that approach has been.

"Through our research, we found that 90 percent of our athletes use some form of supplements," said Jim Grice, the U.S.O.C.'s director of marketing. "We see this as an opportunity to raise the bar in this field."

As a part of the agreement, Ajinomoto agreed to have every batch of Amino Vital tested by the U.C.L.A. laboratory, the only World Anti-Doping Agency-approved lab in the United States. Ajinomoto pays for the costs of the testing, which screens for every substance on the International Olympic Committee's banned list. The U.S.O.C. receives the results of every test.

So far, three batches have been tested over the last four weeks and the U.S.O.C. said the initial tests have all come back clean. The U.S.O.C. has taken this step with a certain amount of trepidation, particularly with the Olympic Games looming in February, when failed drug tests are vaulted into front-page news. There is a long history of athletes' blaming contaminated supplements for those failed tests.

Sports leaders, including United States Anti-Doping Agency officials, have unsuccessfully lobbied the federal government to increase F.D.A. oversight of the supplement industry, so it remains difficult to separate well-intentioned manufacturers from less reliable ones.

Ajinomoto officials say they hope to distinguish their product from the murky lot. The company is a longtime sponsor of the Japanese Olympic Committee, but has been selling Amino Vital in the United States for only two years. Recently, it also became a sponsor of USA Triathlon, as well as signing up two Major League Baseball teams, the Yankees and Mariners.

"We are very new here," said Mitch Nishikawa, vice president and general manager of Ajinomoto's nutraceuticals division. "We want for athletes to have confidence in our product. We need endorsement from a highly regarded organization like the U.S.O.C."

That is why Ajinomoto agreed to the testing, which it pays for although Nishikawa would not say how much it costs. He said Ajinomoto is an $11 billion company. Amino Vital, he said, currently accounts for $12 million to $15 million in sales in the United States, and the goal is to boost that to $300 million in five years. That goal, he said, is what makes the cost of the sponsorship and the testing worthwhile.

"We believe in clean competition and fair play," Nishikawa said. "We want to be sure the supplement industry moves in the right way."

Ajinomoto's long history - the company is 96 years old - as well as its willingness to submit to the testing, was the reason the U.S.O.C. overcame its initial hesitation and signed the two-year deal. An official supporter deal, a lower level than an official sponsor, is worth $1 million to $3 million.

So far, the arrangement has not stirred any controversy.

"U.S.A.D.A. is pleased there are companies interested in showing they are producing clean supplements," said Terry Madden, executive director of U.S.A.D.A. "But our policy remains that athletes are responsible for what they put in their bodies."

Strict liability rules have been the backbone of Olympic drug testing, so the contaminated-supplement defense has not been a successful one for those athletes.

Less than two months before the 2002 Olympics, American bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic tested positive for trace amounts of 19-norandrostenedione, a banned substance he said came from a supplement called Nitro-Tech. He served a two-year ban from his sport and has filed a suit against Nitro-Tech's manufacturer, the Canadian company Muscle-Tech, as well as GNC, the store where he purchased it.

Jovanovic, who has been countersued by the company, expects the case to go to trial in April. Meanwhile, he is back pursuing a spot on the 2006 Olympic team, and said he would no longer take any kind of supplement, even a vitamin.

"I was pretty bitter about the whole thing for a long time," Jovanovic said in a recent interview.

Ed Ryan, the U.S.O.C.'s director of sports medicine, said that when the U.S.O.C. polled its athletes, it also asked why they used supplements. He said the answers were largely for prevention of injury and illness and recovery from workouts.

"There is a fine line an athlete has to walk," Ryan said. "Strict liability is the biggest issue when considering what athletes put in their bodies. We advise them to be cautious and have confidence in the supplements they are using."

But that confidence is hard to establish. In 2002, the I.O.C. did a random testing of 240 supplements and found nearly 20 percent contained a banned substance.

In 2004, the N.F.L. waded into this field and established a process by which supplement companies could submit their products to testing to have them certified as clean by the league. The N.F.L. program, however, will accept only established companies, excludes any company that also manufactures any kind of banned substance and requires a $500 million contribution to the league's player education fund.

So far, only one company, EAS, has applied for and received certification, although the N.F.L. spokesman Greg Aiello said the league continually talked to new companies about joining.

Even if certified, companies may not market themselves as an N.F.L. sponsor. The league prohibits any supplement manufacturer from television advertising during its games or having any ads in its stadiums.

"We're very conservative on the whole subject because of the history of supplements being tainted," Aiello said. "We're just trying to help our players from taking something that would cause them to test positive."

The U.S.O.C. decision to focus on one company and retain it as an exclusive sponsor in its product category is consistent with its traditional marketing approach.

But this product category has been one that the U.S.O.C. had previously avoided until its recent change of heart.

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