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Out of the running

Suspension takes Pippig from road to broadcast booth

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 04/19/99

ince the day she sailed her way into this city's heart by finishing a sparkling second in the 1990 Boston Marathon, her US debut after leaving East Germany, marathoning brought Uta Pippig little but joy and success. Even the setbacks - the worst being forced to drop out of the 1996 Olympics with a leg injury - seemed temporary, a brief chop on life's ocean that soon would calm again as Pippig resumed her voyage toward immortality in the sport.

After all, how could anything swamp an athlete who earned her third straight Boston Marathon victory, as she did at the 100th running in 1996, by coming from nowhere in the last miles while suffering from stomach cramps and relentless diarrhea?

Then, last October, the 33-year-old Pippig was suspended by the German athletic federation for failing a routine out-of-competition drug test. Unable to compete during the suspension and facing a two-year ban if found guilty, Pippig suddenly finds herself looking for a lifeline to save her career.

''I don't wish any person on earth this,'' said Pippig last fall, shortly after the suspension. ''I know I didn't do anything. It's hard. It's just not fair.''

But Pippig's forced exile from the roads hasn't kept the longtime Boston favorite out of town this weekend. On Saturday, looking fit and relaxed, she smiled for photos at the Boston Athletic Association's annual breakfast for past champions. Today, as she did last year while taking what she thought would be a short break from marathoning, she will be doing television commentary for Channel 4.

Despite her uncertain situation, Pippig said recently that she was looking forward to race day. ''I can't miss it, you know,'' she said. ''It's too special.'' The same goes for the city: ''You should go where you feel supported.''

Still, she sighed, ''I wish I could run.''

Meanwhile, Pippig's contract with Nike expired in December and has not been renewed. (''Given that she's not racing and not able to actually compete, there is no reason to sit down and discuss a contract at this point,'' said Dave Mingey, a company spokesman, who nonetheless added, ''We of course stand by Uta until her appeal process has been exhausted.'') She is paying her own legal fees, and already has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance fees and likely prize money.

And, there is no immediate end in sight. Six months after the suspension was handed down, the commission in Germany that is investigating her case still has not set a hearing date. If found guilty, the three-time Boston champion and two-time Olympian could be banned from competition for up to two years.

''I am very often asking my people what is going on,'' said Helmut Digel, president of the German federation, the Deutscher Leichtathletik Verband, ''because this situation is for both parties not a good one. It is very important the period of suspension shouldn't last too long.''

The delays may be due to questions about both science and procedure. As in the nearly three-year-old Mary Slaney case, it is unclear whether the test is even valid in women. (Slaney was cleared by a USA Track & Field panel of a similar doping violation, and filed a lawsuit last Tuesday against the United States Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletic Federation, charging negligence in handling the case.) In Pippig's case, matters have been complicated by an unexplained switch in her two urine samples.

For years, rumors have swirled inside the running community about Pippig's high training mileage and rapid recovery after races; a training routine some fellow runners in Boulder, where she now lives, viewed as excessively private; and her East German background. But until last fall, Pippig never had failed any of the dozens of drug tests in her career. (She does acknowledge that, while still living in East Germany in 1984, she briefly took ''some kind of drug'' that her trainer told her was vitamins, but stopped within a few weeks after her parents, both physicians, investigated and told her to stop.)

''I think it's kind of a sad thing,'' Pippig said of the accusations. ''But I feel sorry for them. People who say this can be jealous.''

The test Pippig did fail, which showed an abnormal ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in her urine, is by no means universally trusted. The accepted ratio of testosterone, the male sex hormone, to epitestosterone, an inactive metabolite that is used as a marker, is 6 to 1; anything above that is considered to indicate the possible use of testosterone as a performance-enhancing anabolic steroid. But because the test cannot distinguish naturally produced testosterone from ingested testosterone, even a high ratio is no guarantee an athlete has taken testosterone or androstenedione, the latter used by Mark McGwire and legal in baseball but banned by the IAAF.

At the same time, a ratio up to 10 to 1 still is considered to be in a gray area. According to Pippig, not only was her ratio 9.2 to 1, but the abnormality was not due to high testosterone but rather to low epitestosterone, perhaps resulting from a number of conditions specific to gender and health issues that she has been battling since her epic run in 1996.

''I'm skeptical about the validity of the test, especially in women,'' said Dr. Robert Barbieri, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, who has sent a letter to the German federation on Pippig's behalf. ''This test has been most widely used in male athletes, and then it's been applied to females kind of by analogy. In my mind, when we finally work out the details we will abandon it as a test for women.''

Especially in question, Barbieri believes, are the effects on the t/e ratio of oral contraceptives - which Pippig was taking at the time - and medical conditions involving the bowel, through which the hormones are cycled. Pippig was hospitalized for tests after the episode during the 1996 Marathon, and said that intestinal problems, including diarrhea, and a severe hormone imbalance persisted even up to the time of the drug test last April.

''It's obvious I had a lot of problems with my intestinal tract during the last years,'' she said.

In Pippig's case, questions of procedure also have arisen. When urine is collected for testing, samples are placed in two bottles, marked ''A'' and ''B,'' and then placed into containers also marked ''A'' and ''B.'' After her test last April 23, said Pippig, she placed the correct bottles into the matching containers herself, and then she, her coach and companion Dieter Hogen, and the test controller all signed to confirm the protocol was done correctly. But when the ''A'' container was opened April 29 in a German laboratory, said Pippig, the ''B'' sample was found inside, leaking.

''The federation said, `It must have been you,''' said Pippig. ''But ... when a controller comes you do everything very clear and slow. Six eyes who look to the same bottle, the same container, the same paper ... ''

''There was no mistake in our home,'' insisted Hogen.

And none by the federation, insisted Digel. ''We got the information that the test was positive, and that is why we made our decision to suspend,'' he said. ''We are not responsible for the collection of the sample, not responsible for the containers, not responsible for the transportation.''

If mistakes were made in the lab, Digel said, it is the lab's responsibility, not the federation's.

Where does this leave Pippig?

''If this [the reversal of the samples and the subsequent testing of them in the wrong order, according to international rules] is fact, it would be very hard to prosecute this case,'' said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and lead author of the textbook ''Drugs and the Athlete.'' ''If all these things can be proved, case closed.''

Yet the case is not yet closed, and so at noon today Pippig will be on TV rather than the starting line. Still, she remains optimistic.

''The evidence shows I'm not guilty,'' she said. ''I will run again. Nothing will change for me.''

This story ran on page D09 of the Boston Globe on 04/19/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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