JOHANNESBURG— The list of banned substances in sport is long and complex, including chemical monstrosities such as fenproporex and quinbolone. Anti-doping officials have imposed harsher guidelines to prevent athletes from taking the performance enhancers, but in some countries, authorities are dealing with even more mysterious substances such as snake skins and monkey parts.
At the world anti-doping conference in Johannesburg, Africa's sports federations have met to share concerns about the need to regulate such traditional medicines.
I first learned about muti, or African traditional medicine, when a professional fighter at my Johannesburg boxing gym told me about his pre-fight plans.
I’m going to the sangoma, he told me, using the word for a traditional healer. He is going to give me muti to make me really strong.
He told me about a market where magical dealers sell powerful concoctions, made of shriveled animal parts and herbs to make you harder, better, faster, stronger. He said the dealers also cast spells.
And so, as I found myself this week at the the world anti-doping conference discussing hard-to-pronounce chemicals and the ultra-sophisticated doping regimen of U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong, I thought of my friend.
It turns out I am not the only one concerned about this completely unregulated world of medicine.
Rafiek Mammon of South Africa’s anti-doping agency says muti is very popular in some sports and that officials walk a fine line between cultural sensitivity and concern.
“It’s common in certain sports, especially such as boxing, and in some cases in wrestling, because there are many African people who subscribe to that kind of culture, who take the muti, and who believe in it," said Mammon. "So, who are we to tell them that their supplement is not allowed or is allowed in sport?”
But David Howman, the secretary-general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, says the global body has determined that herbal remedies are no threat and have not put them on the banned list.
“We had that very question asked before the Olympic Games in Beijing, as to whether Chinese traditional medicines were possibly doping substances. All the study that has been conducted so far worldwide indicates to the contrary, that most of the herbal - I can’t say all because I just don’t know them all - but most of the herbal medicines and traditional meds have not shown to be performance-enhancing. So we don’t have any view beyond that," said Howman.
But that, African officials say, is beside the point. Performance-enhancing substances are often concocted at great expense in high-end labs -- it is unlikely that even the most esoteric bit of muti would contain, say, dehydrochlormethyltestosterone.
The problem, Mammon says, is that no one knows exactly what they do contain. Anecdotes abound about unscrupulous sangomas slipping illegal substances into their remedies.
“Being in Africa, we need to address it, and we need to know what it is that possibly is in it. Right now, I know that there’s HFL [a sports science institute], they’re beginning to look at the efficacy of supplements and grading it ... We need to the same with muti," he said.
Mammon said African officials have been talking about the issue on the sidelines of the anti-doping conference.
“Especially at this conference we have had very, very good interaction with other, especially African, countries that are dealing with similar problems, or challenges. And I think the way forward would be to open up those discussions a little bit more and to have them a little bit more prominently featured," he said.
Back to my friend the boxer. Whatever he did or did not take got him safely through his drug test, and to his fight, which was a draw. He blamed the sangoma, for not putting a better spell on his opponent.
Howman, the head of World Anti-Doping Agency, said the agency has a fairly permissive stance on curses and hexes. He cited the warrior dance performed by members of New Zealand’s rugby team.
“As far as witchcraft and things are concerned, well, that seems to me to fall into the psychological category of most sports where there is some sort of mental battle and so forth that goes on. And again, if I turn back to my own country, the national rugby team performs a haka [dance] before every game. That’s quite a strong challenge, both mentally and otherwise, and quite an intimidation. But it’s allowed. And in fact, it’s respected," he said.
The new WADA code, mercifully, does not expound on many of these nuances. But it looks like there is one thing no code can ever take out of sports: A little bit of magic.