Four years after Zach Lund was suspended from the winter Olympics in 2006 for using Propecia, the American skeleton racer is ready to man up for this year’s Vancouver Games in February.
The former world No. 1 said he felt cheated of a gold medal when the hair loss product was eventually taken off the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited drugs, but that a promise he made to his mother before she died motivated him to live his dream again.
Thirty-year-old Zach Lund started using Propecia to help curb his balding in 1999. He began competing as a professional skeleton racer in 2000 but in 2005, Propecia was banned from use by professional athletes because it was thought to disguise the use of prohibited anabolic steroids. Taking into account there was no malicious intent in Lund’s use of Propecia, the Court of Arbitration for Sport gave him a one-year penalty which was backdated to the start of the 2005-6 season, so as not to interfere with the 2006-7 season, but it did bar Lund from competing in the Turin Olympics.
“I would rather be the last-place slider in the world than be labelled a cheat,” Lund told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time. “It was an honest mistake.”
A mistake that turned out to be harmless, in fact. On January 1st 2009, the World Anti-Doping Agency lifted the ban on Propecia following tests that concluded the hair loss product could not hide the presence of illegal substances. But the decision to remove it from the list only made it harder for the 2006 winter games gold-medal favourite to deal with.
“I knew I was going to be the gold medalist that year, I knew I was,” Lund said of the 2006 winter games. “Me taking [Propecia] to keep my hair from falling out wasn’t the reason why I had a good year.”
Propecia is one of two clinically proven medications for hair loss and has been conclusively tested for safety as well as efficacy. While it was banned by use of profesional sportsmen between 2005 and late 2008, the other hair loss treatment was not. Had Lund at the time been using minoxidil, at least just while he was competing, he would have avoided the notorious outcome and perhaps still have his hair.
Propecia is commonly prescribed to help stabilise and prevent male pattern baldness, but it cannot revive dormant hair follicles once the area has gone smooth. Other sports stars who are believed to have used the treatment include Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, Italian golfer Alessandro Pissilli, and Brazillian footballing legend Romario de Souza Faria. Despite prior assumptions, Propecia does not mask steroid use or enhance sporting abilities.
“I lost my entire dream because of the anti-doping agency’s inability to do their job right,” Lund told The New York Times. “They put stuff on the banned list before they have scientific proof and athletes are held 100 percent at fault and they’re not.”
After apparently ceasing use of Propecia following the ban, Lund worked hard to prove himself on the World Cup Circuit. Winning four of eight races and setting the track record at the Olympic course in Turin, Lund won the overall title in 2007.
Lund made a request last year to the World Anti-Doping Agency to clear his record, but it was ignored. This, combined with his third place standing in the World Cup at the end of the 2007-08 season, tipped the innocent man over the edge. Anger consumed him and it showed in his performance.
“I had a negative attitude about everything,” Lund said. “I didn’t enjoy myself at all, I wasn’t enjoying the sport, did not enjoy being around people. And it showed in my results.”
Then, a text message from a high school friend and a promise he remembered he’d made to his mother before she died from skin cancer was the inspiration he needed to refocus and get his professional career back on track.
“I either needed to let it go or just quit the sport,” Lund said. “Holding on to it and letting it have the negative effect it was having wasn’t helping me.”
Despite a hamstring injury, Lund finished 9th in the men’s skeleton World Cup competition at the weekend, on what is considered one of the most difficult tracks in the world Altenberg, Germany. He was the highest American finisher and is focused on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. And if he qualifies, he’s ready to address the suspension issue that is all too likely to arise.
“It’s part of my story, part of my journey,” he said. “But not a hitching point.”