She did what just about everybody else would have done: she had a cold, so she took a pill. But Silken Laumann is not everybody else. The 30-year-old rower is one of Canada's best-loved amateur athletes, an Olympic medallist and a top contender at the Summer Games in Atlanta next year. And at the Pan-Am Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Laumann was typically extraordinary, sailing to victory in the women's single sculls final on March 18. The next day, along with crewmates Marnie McBean, Diane O'Grady and Wendy Wiebe, she captured another gold in the women's quadruple event - winning by an 11-second margin over the Cuban boat. Then, the unthinkable: a Games official revealed that Laumann's anti-doping test had shown illegal levels of the banned stimulant pseudo-ephedrine. On March 23, the Pan-American Sports Organization (PASO) revoked the Canadian crew's gold medal.
At a news conference in Victoria, where she lives, Laumann lashed out at the decision, saying that she had only inadvertently used a prohibited medication. Canadian Olympic Association (COA) officials began preparing an appeal to try to keep the gold medals and hinted that the incident would not cost Laumann a chance to compete in Atlanta. As the participants hurled accusations and ducked blame, one question remained: how could this happen to Silken Laumann - the courageous and dedicated athlete who only three years ago returned from a devastating leg injury to capture bronze at the Barcelona Olympics? As the answer came to light, it revealed something less than a scandal of Ben Johnson proportions - and something more akin to a comedy of errors.
As Laumann told it, her problems began in Victoria on March 8, when she consulted rowing-team physician Richard Backus about what medication she should - and could legally - take for a developing cold. Backus recommended Benadryl, an over-the-counter antihistamine that does not contain banned substances. But when Laumann went to a Victoria pharmacy to purchase the medication, she inadvertently bought a different kind of Benadryl - Benadryl Decongestant Allergy. As is clearly marked on the label, the medication contains pseudo-ephedrine. But Laumann did not read the label. Nor did she consult a pamphlet, provided to all athletes by the government-funded Canadian Centre for Drug-Free Sport, which lists more than 100 banned substances - including the Benadryl Decongestant Allergy formula.
In Argentina, with her cold growing worse, Laumann consulted another team physician, Don Newhouse. He assured her that Benadryl was not in violation of anti-doping rules - although he did not check which kind she was using. She took the medication. And the next day, post-race tests revealed a concentration of 29 micrograms of pseudo-ephedrine per millilitre in her urine. The allowed limit is 10 micrograms.
According to Jack Uetrecht, a professor of pharmacy and medicine at the University of Toronto, pseudo-ephedrine stimulates the body's respiratory and vascular system in much the same way as adrenaline does. (Its decongestant benefit is that it shrinks nasal blood vessels.) But in the form and dosage that Laumann took it, pseudo-ephedrine "does not enhance performance," Uetrecht said. (Uetrecht added that Backus's original prescription - regular Benadryl - is an antihistamine that is effective only for treating allergies. "It wouldn't have helped her cold at all," he says. "To use it for colds is totally irrational.")
Although she acknowledged part of the responsibility for taking the wrong medication, Laumann laid heavy blame on the two doctors. "I think that it's very irresponsible," she said, "and that the advice from the doctors was given flippantly." The rower was not alone in her criticism. PASO president Mario Vasquez Rana and Prince Alexandre de Merode, head of the International Olympic Commission's Medical Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, called for sanctions against the Canadian team's physicians.
One of them, Backus, was off on a ski vacation and unavailable for comment. But Newhouse complained that he is being made a scapegoat for the incident. "I don't feel any responsibility or that blame should be assigned to anyone in this," he said. Still, Carol Anne Letheren, chief executive officer of the COA, said that the incident points to the need for new medical guidelines. In the future, Letheren said, the COA will "simply have to require" that doctors "not give any advice unless they have seen the packaging and the product, and then only if they provide that advice in writing." Asked Victor Lachance, chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre for Drug-Free Sport: "Why not have an on-site pharmacy at each competition, dispensing only approved drugs?"
As for Laumann's immediate future, the COA's Letheren said that "Silken went to such lengths to protect herself and comply with the rules that we believe there should be no sanctions." Laumann, meanwhile, retired to her Victoria home to rest. "After this is over," she said, "I'm just going to have to put this behind me, be more careful and watch the advice that I take more carefully." From now on, she added, her attitude towards any medication will be: "Don't ever take anything ever, no matter how sick you are." After a week of turmoil, that is understandable. But there is another piece of advice, time-honored and tested, that may apply in this case: whenever taking an over-the-counter medication, read the label.
Maclean's April 3, 1995