With His Expertise on Doping, Wadler Has Become the . . . Steroid Detective

By John Jeansonne.
November 13, 2003

Another steroids-in-sports crime scene means another flurry of forensic work for Manhasset-based physician Gary Wadler. No sooner had a new designer steroid been discovered, and publicly unveiled as the center of a widening scandal last month, than Wadler was flying into action on various fronts.

Almost simultaneously, he was educating himself about the just-decoded chemical substance - armed with computer, medical-reference tomes, decades of diagnostic experience and worldwide connections - even as he was serving as expert witness on the science of performance-enhancing drugs.

Posthaste, Wadler was explaining - to news outlets from "Nightline" to USA Today to German national television - that the new steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, is closely related to two previously known steroids, gestrinone and trenbolone.

He was describing how THG, obtained by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in a syringe, apparently is taken not by injection, but in droplets under the tongue. And that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has the means for retroactive suspension of THG users in international competition, because WADA bans the "entire family of anabolic steroids."

Wadler, 64, is one of five people, and the only American, on the committee that determines WADA's official list of prohibited substances. He is a charter member of the organization, founded three years ago as the global entity to police the use of performance-enhancing substances.

His 1989 book, "Drugs and the Athlete," was a seminal work in its field and earned him the International Olympic Committee's "president's prize." (Copies of the book, in Japanese and French as well as English, sit in Wadler's office bookcase.)

He really is the go-to guy on doping. Expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice, author of scores of articles and participant in various international conferences, he is the articulate voice for the medical and ethical aspects of doping.

"It's an aspire higher deal," he said. "I grew up believing that our sports heroes were genuine, that they were great athletes because they had special skills and trained harder. I try to deal in the notion of fair play. That's why I think we need national introspection on this. Ethics, values, a level playing field. And I firmly believe that good policy has to be built on sound science."

A resident of Sands Point, he grew up in Brooklyn. His father, who came from Austria with no formal education, was a "window trimmer" in small shops throughout the metropolitan area. "Always in the car," Wadler said.

His mother was a part-time teacher and Wadler was the middle of three sons, interested in being a doctor from a young age, though he has no idea why. He never was an athlete.

"I'm the classic two left feet," he said. "I'm still struggling on the tennis court. I have absolutely no athletic skill."

Nor does he follow sports as a traditional fan. "I don't know who's in first place; I don't even know who's in the lineup," he said. "I do relax by watching sports sometimes."

He did meet Jackie Robinson twice, the second time when he was summoned to a meeting by the state government looking into drug addiction, shortly after Robinson lost his son to a drug-related death.

Graduated from Samuel Tilden High School, Brooklyn College and Cornell Medical School, Wadler had just left North Shore University Hospital in 1979 to set up his own practice in internal medical when he happened to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament as a guest of Hy Zausner. Zausner was the commerical real estate developer who was both Wadler's landlord at his first Manhasset office and a builder of the recently opened National Tennis Center.

Convinced there was a lot more to the medical needs of tennis players than "joints, twisted ankles and surgery" handled by an orthopedic surgeon, Wadler offered his services, pro bono, as the Open's tournament physician from 1980 through 1991.

It was Wadler who diagnosed the mysterious toxoplasmosis, a viral infection caught from her pet cat, that helped lay low No. 1 player Martina Navratilova during the 1982 tournament. It was Wadler who "took away Jimmy Connors' cola" and thereby aided the aging star's glorious run to the Open semifinals at 39 in 1991.

"He was a cola freak and drank a lot of it the night before he played," Wadler said. "There's caffeine in cola, and caffeine in a diarrhetic. If you're playing five-set matches in the heat, you're going to have a real problem with dehydration. Without the cola, Connors' cramping disappeared."

Between those two incidents, in 1986, Wadler got a fateful "tap on the shoulder" from a representative of the men's pro tennis tour, requesting that Wadler submit to a urine test. It was meant to demonstrate to the players that no one associated with the tournament was exempt from drug testing, and it triggered Wadler's curiosity in the doping issue.

His book on the subject was published three years later. A 1995 Duke University conference on drugs in sports "really opened the door" for Wadler to meet like-minded scholars and scientists.

A tireless, restless soul, Wadler said he didn't marry until he was 33 - he and wife Nancy, who works in international property law, have a son and daughter both in the publishing business in Manhattan - because he had spent so much time on his various jobs and related undertakings.

He has a resume of titles, appointments, memberships and accomplishments too extensive to fit on this page - ranging from his role as associate professor of clinical medicine at NYU to his position as chairman of the board/president of the Nassau County Sports Commission, which, among other things, won the 12-city bidding that placed the Women's Sports Foundation at Eisenhower Park in 1993.

At one point, in the mid-'90s, Wadler even was working to relocate the Mets in Nassau County, with a new stadium envisioned adjacent to Belmont Racetrack. That was the rare Wadler project - among other things, he founded the drug treatment center at North Shore University Hospital and created a drug-education program for Nassau schools - that didn't materialize.

As for the anti-doping campaign, occasionally in the public eye with headlines such as with the THG scandal, there remain cynics who lament that the drug fight never will quite reach critical mass. Even the fact that name athletes from Major League Baseball and the NFL have been subpoenaed for grand jury testimony tied to the THG investigation hardly has stirred widespread outrage.

But Wadler is not discouraged. "Look at what public education has done with seat belts, smoking, the designated driver," he said. "In every case, it's had an impact. You can influence these behaviors.

"You can't scare people with false information," he said, noting that medical evidence does not tie steroid use to deaths, though there are clear health dangers. "But there are not inconsequential numbers of young people - boys and girls - on steroids. With WADA and USADA, we now have mechanisms to deal with this. Never before have we been able to do the detective work so rapidly and follow through with international education. This is a public responsibility."

He is one steroid detective who will continue plugging away.