Doping rare in volleyball due to strict rules

Aug. 18, 2008, 5:30 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The curious case of Bulgarian captain Plamen Konstantinov and rumors of doping is a rarity in the volleyball world.

There's the fact that doping arguably doesn't provide much of an advantage in a sport like volleyball. But, even more than that, the international federation for the sport has long held strict rules that punish entire teams in addition to the individual athletes who cheat.

So it was surprising in Beijing when news surfaced that Konstantinov may - or may not - have had suspect test results. He was cleared, but the case remains intriguing because it is rife with rumors.

The 35-year-old veteran was mysteriously absent from Bulgaria's first match in preliminary pool play. Then he missed a second. The FIVB reported that it was told by the team physician that Konstantinov was not playing because of medical reasons.

But Konstantinov was actually traveling back to Bulgaria, hoping to take a test that would prove he was clean - amid reports that two unofficial tests had shown his testosterone levels were elevated, but still within acceptable limits. He was dismissed from the team because the Bulgarian federation did not want to risk a positive result - high testosterone levels can be a sign of doping.

In the meantime, the chairman of Bulgaria's anti-doping commission said Konstantinov had not failed any test.

"His blood showed high levels of testosterone. Although they were below the maximum admissible levels, the volleyball federation decided to take an extra precaution and remove him from the match," Kamen Plochev told Bulgaria's National TV. "In their panic, the federation made a hasty decision."

Konstantinov did indeed have the new test while away from the team in Beijing and the Bulgarian anti-doping commission reported his sample was negative.

The president of the FIVB, Dr. Ruben Acosta, said he supported the Bulgarian federation for its actions concerning Konstantinov.

"If the Bulgarian team decided to let him go, I think it was a wise decision," Acosta said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If the federation had certain doubts if he could be found positive, this could hurt the chances of the Bulgarian team."

Under FIVB rules for indoor volleyball, if an athlete tests positive following a match, the team could lose the match regardless of the end results, Acosta said. And if two athletes on a team test positive, the team could be removed from the tournament, he explained. Individual athletes are also suspended from the sport.

The FIVB takes the unusual stance of punishing the whole team, Acosta said, because so often doping cases are not solely the fault of the athlete accused.

"Very often it is not the individual, it is the doctor, or some other person who is pushing to get some kind of advantage," Acosta said.

The FIVB reports that 3,860 tests were conducted by the federation and its medical delegates around the world in 2007 and less than 1 percent were positive.

Konstantinov missed his team's first four games in Beijing. When he returned, he had five points in Bulgaria's 3-1 victory over Venezuela, putting the Bulgarians at 3-2 after preliminary pool play.

"Plamen is a very important part of the team. If you have an engine and you take out a piece of that engine you need time for it to start working correctly," Bulgarian middle blocker Evgeni Ivanov said.