Three of the top players in Canadian college football have tested positive for banned substances, a development that comes with doping experts saying Canada's university athletics have become a "wild west" where athletes are gaming the system.
The players tested positive during a training camp for the top 37 collegiate players that were hosted earlier this year in Edmonton by the Canadian Football League, TSN has learned.
The testing was performed by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, whose officials have informed the players' schools about the infractions, according to two senior university officials familiar with the matter.
Pierre Lafontaine, chief executive of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the governing body for university athletics in Canada, confirmed "multiple players" tested positive for banned substances at the March CFL combine.
The players' names have not been disclosed publicly. It's unclear which schools they attend and what drugs they took. Lafontaine said schools may disclose details about the tests next month.
The positive tests mark the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle by schools and sports leagues to contain steroid use by athletes who are looking for an edge. Steroids build muscle strength, add weight, and can help players recover faster from injuries, but also come with potentially life-threatening side effects. Steroid users can develop tumours and suffer other harmful side effects.
But as athletes have taken more personal risks, testing has improved. At least 14 Major League Baseball players have been suspended for testing positive for banned substances, and the reputation of cyclist Lance Armstrong is in tatters because of his positive tests.
The latest positive tests in Canadian college football come four years after a steroids scandal rocked a major school's football program. In 2010, eight players at the University of Waterloo were suspended for anti-doping rules violations after testing or admitting to using steroids and three years later, a ninth player at the centre of the scandal was sentenced for possession of steroids for the purpose of trafficking, among other charges.
Since the Waterloo scandal, 14 other Canadian college football players have tested positive for banned substances, including Concordia University lineman Quinn Smith, who tested positive for an anabolic steroid in March at a combine event in Toronto - days before the Edmonton training camp.
"(Steroids in Canadian colleges) have gone under the radar because the attention has been fixed on professional sports and the individual elite-level athletes," Bob Copeland, Waterloo's former athletic director, said in an interview. "There's no question it's still a problem, and it's tough to say who is doing it. At Waterloo some of the players who admitted using or tested positive were second-string players."
Copeland and others say that immediately after the scandal at Waterloo, schools across Canada committed to improve the testing of players in all sports.
Yet since then, costs have climbed to $1,000 per test. Public funding for testing has been frozen. Ira Jacobs, dean of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education and an expert on doping, says the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports is being pressured by the federal government to focus efforts on students who participate in Olympic sports - at the cost of policing college athletes who play hockey and football.
"It's a wild west because we have no (effective doping) controls in place and the athletes know," Jacobs told TSN.
Paul Melia, president of the CCES, said funding from Sport Canada to the CCES has been fixed at $5.4 million in recent years.
Much of that funding goes to pay for 85 doping control officers and for contracts with labs, he said. The CCES pays $1.7 million-a-year alone to two labs in Ontario and Quebec, said Melia, who declined to comment on the positive drug tests at the CFL combine.
"We have to monitor 10,000 CIS athletes, 800 Olympic level athletes, 250 alone at the Commonwealth Games (recently in Scotland)," he said.
With Sport Canada demanding more frequent testing of Olympic athletes, presumably to prevent embarrassing sports scandals that might tarnish Canada's image at the Olympics and other international competitions, there's less money left to test Canadian university athletes.
It's a problem Canadian schools have pledged to address. CIS schools recently agreed to give the CCES money to be used for CIS athlete testing during coming years.
While that funding will allow the CCES plans to conduct as many as 200 tests of CIS athletes, that is far below the number of tests conducted on athletes in past years, which makes it easier for athletes to dodge detection. During 2011-12, for instance, the CCES conducted 455 tests of CIS athletes.
Melia said the CCES faces challenges in coming months. Anabolic steroids remain the second-most seized drug at the Canada-U.S. border, he said.
"We don't know who is being arrested or where the drugs are headed because of Canada's privacy legislation," Melia said, adding that steroids are also the No. 1 imported drug to Quebec.
It is similarly difficult for police to make headway on many steroid-related cases. Police officials have said finding steroids is rare because users don't often overdose and end up in a hospital. Police come into contact with steroid traffickers far less often than they do with drug dealers who peddle recreational drugs such as cocaine, said one Toronto-area police official who has worked on drug cases.
With costs spiralling up, the CCES has agreed to adopt in 2015 a new drug-code passed by the World Anti-Doping Agency that is certain to further hike costs, Copeland said.
Agreeing to that code will force the CCES to invest more money in random testing and developing so-called biological passports for athletes. The passports will establish baseline levels for testosterone and other chemicals and proteins in an athlete's blood over a series of tests, so that subsequent test results can be compared.
Melia said the CCES is similarly trying to expand intelligence gathering. A doping hotline established last fall has attracted 50 to 100 tips so far, he said.
"We are also trying to get stats from schools about how much athletes can bench press or how they do in the 50 metres, so we can compare later results to see if there are big changes," he said.
CFL spokesman Jamie Dykstra said the league pays for the testing of prospects at combines but since they athletes are still in university, "they don't fall under our drug policy which was collectively bargained with our players association."
Copeland said he's been struck by the fact that second-string players are just as likely users of steroids as A-list players.
"I can see why users might justify this in the U.S. for the chance to land a big contract, even though it's still a long shot, but these guys in Canada are taking these risks for the chance for an entry-level contract in the CFL," Copeland said. "That's a $50,000 contract. It doesn't make sense."