Originally created 08/11/01

Chess players struggle with idea of drug tests in push to join Olympics



FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- If the world's leading chess federation gets its way, the game will be included in the Olympics - as long as the competitors agree to the drug tests.

The Federation Internationale des Echecs, the organization leading the push, has already begun testing for substances banned at the Olympics in an effort to boost its credentials.

That has rankled some players who call drug-testing in chess a logistical headache and a logical absurdity.

"What, human-growth hormones so we can bang the clock harder?" said Jim Leade, a U.S. representative to FIDE who thinks the organization is being too strict. "It absolutely registers as ridiculous."

The issue is on the agenda Saturday at the U.S. Chess Federation's annual meeting here, which coincides with the end of the 102nd U.S. Open.

Delegates will debate motions to ban testing at U.S. events. Many say they are dumbfounded by the drug-testing proposals, but are willing to sacrifice to help make chess an Olympic sport.

Chess enthusiasts acknowledge that their bid is unusual, but insist the game is a legitimate sport.

"It's competitive, it requires endurance," said George DeFeis, executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation. "It's a mind game that tests the stamina of each chess player. I think the Olympics will benefit from seeing how other sports that are not so physical, though mentally fierce, compete."

FIDE says chess has Olympic-scale appeal, with 156 member federations and 5 million registered players. It has applied for consideration and has received official recognition from the International Olympic Committee. But that's only a first step.

IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said there is no possibility of adding chess at the 2004 Games in Athens, which has already reached its cap of 10,000 athletes. Chess wouldn't work at the Winter Games - rules allow only sports played on ice or snow.

Moreau also said Olympic officials will not add sports unless others drop out, and chess backers note that at least a dozen other sports, including fin swimming, surfing, billiards, want to become Olympic events.

Then there's the question of whether chess is a sport.

The Olympic Charter includes guidelines to ensure only widely popular sports are included, such as requiring participation in 75 countries and at least four continents. But other than banning sports that use motors, the IOC has discretion to determine what constitutes a sport.

"We always thought that sport should involve some element of physical skill," said Dick Pound, an IOC member from Canada. He said chess had little chance of becoming an Olympic sport.

Chess officials say drug testing is more than a hoop to jump through - it may even be necessary.

"At first I was making jokes, too," said Dr. Stephen Press, a New Jersey physician who is on FIDE's medical commission. "My initial reaction was, unless we've got a Bulgarian weightlifter who's playing chess, we're probably not going to catch anybody."

Press changed his mind after reading research on substances that can enhance brain performance and hearing that chess players from Cuba and eastern bloc countries physically exercised to train.

Although FIDE's tests at a youth tournament in Argentina last month were all negative, Press said he believes some top international players do use banned substances.

Joel Benjamin, the reigning U.S. champion, disputed that claim and called drug testing an extra expense and an invasion of privacy. The tests cost $300 to $500 each.

DeFeis admits that critics of testing have a point, but said Olympic glory is worth the inconvenience and even the ridicule.

"The first step is to show our desire to get into the Olympics," he said.

Chess federation delegate Allen Hinshaw of Midlothian, Va., said he wants to see chess become an Olympic sport, but seemed surprised by the drug controversy. He recalled watching a tournament played in a bank vault in West Virginia some years ago, when a leading contender sat down to play with a jug of "white lightning" by his side.

"He had an excellent opening, a slightly faulty middle, and by the end of the game he was completely out of it," Hinshaw said. "Anybody who tries to drink or use any drugs to play chess, it just doesn't help."

On the Net:

Federation Internationale des Echecs: http://www.fide.com/cgi-bin/federations.pl?about

U.S. Chess Federation: http://www.uschess.org