Mary Harada, one speedy septuagenarian, would like to believe her fellow masters track and field competitors would never take anything stronger than, say, Metamucil or Ensure to boost their performance.
But Harada, who set a record among 76-year-olds by breaking the 8-minute mile, has heard the gossip at every meet she attends.
"People half-jokingly say, 'Oh, so-and-so must be on drugs, look how good she is,' " said the retired college history professor, who will travel from her home in West Newbury, Mass., to Sacramento next week to compete in the World Masters Games with 4,800 other athletes ages 35 and up. "It demeans a performance and is unfair, but that's human nature."
Concerns about performance-enhancing drug use among older athletes, for whom success on the track is a point of pride and not a money-making venture, has led to random urine testing of athletes at all World Masters Athletics international events. Next month in Ohio, the U.S. national championships will introduce drug testing.
Athletes lament that use of banned substances such as anabolic steroids and stimulants has sullied their sport's do-it-for-fun gestalt. Many are scrambling to make sure their prescription medications are legal and, if they aren't, to secure a medical exemption to compete.
Older athletes create a challenge for the World Anti-Doping Agency, which usually deals with elites who aren't on hormone-replacement drugs for menopause, age-related, erectile-dysfunction medicine like Viagra, or all manner of hypertension meds.
"The age and medical conditions that are encountered in masters athletes do raise some unique considerations," said Stan Perkins, WMA president. "... Where appropriate, amendments to our testing procedures can be considered."
Yet Perkins and U.S. masters track and field officials defend testing.
"Masters athletes are no different (than) other people within our world," Perkins said. "In some, the competitive spirit continues to fiercely dominate and, unfortunately, for some this means they will take risks and do whatever they can to win."
A few masters runners once were top international competitors, but the vast majority are talented but sub-elite athletes who enjoy competing and testing themselves against others in their age groups. Anyone can compete in the national and world championships, which have been held since 1975. Since the 1990s, participant numbers have grown to nearly 5,000.
Since drug testing was implemented for masters in 1995, a handful of athletes have tested positive and been suspended. One, American sprinter Val Barnwell, tested positive for testosterone prohormones after winning the 200 meters at the 2009 Masters World Championships in Lahti, Finland. He was banned for two years.
Barnwell, 53, has proclaimed his innocence. He has said Viagra and other "sexual enhancement supplements" caused his testosterone levels to rise, though none of the supplements he said he took appear on the banned list.
Reached at home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Barnwell criticized "invading the privacy of masters athletes" with an "invasive and demeaning" procedure.
"I did not 'get caught.' It just so happened my testosterone was high. I take a lot (of supplements) because I'm older," Barnwell said. "Older people need stuff. ... We're lucky to get off our beds and compete."
Some say the problem is overblown.
"Here's why I don't think (performance-enhancing drug use) is widespread: Most masters runners I know are not consistent enough in their performances to be accused of it," said Pete Magill, who owns most of the 45-49 age-group middle distance records and writes about masters athletes for Running Times magazine. "In masters, you don't see any of the patterns you'd expect."
Yet Magill favors testing.
"It's important that, as a group, we submit to drug testing to fight that perception" of pervasive drug use among athletes, he said "Any time now anyone has a great performance, the first thing people think is not, 'That's a great performer.' They think, 'That guy has a great pharmacist.' "
Perceptions aside, athletes using prescription drugs must complete a "therapeutic use exemption" form. Harada, for instance, has an exemption form on file for the inhalant she uses for exercise-induced asthma.
Older athletes with hypertension need to know that the medications Diamox and Lozol are banned, but Lisinopril and Procardia are not. The cholesterol medicine Lipitor is approved, but prostate cancer medicine Zoladex is prohibited (due to peptide hormones). Albuterol spray for asthma is fine; injectable albutrol is banned. Allergy meds such as Claritin are cleared, but Dimetapp is not.
Bob Weiner, a member of the U.S. masters executive board and once press secretary to former White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, said it's sad to wonder whether the runner next to him on the starting line is "juiced."
But Harada, the 76-year-old miler, has no such worries.
"I know most of the people in my age group, and none of them look like they're on anything," she said. "We're all shrinking and shriveling."