Caracas: A Scandal And A Warning

The drug revelations that rocked the Pan Am Games put in motion a stringent new cleanup campaign
September 04, 1983

Last Saturday morning, dressed in cut-off blue jeans and a striped Pan American Games T shirt, William E. Simon, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, sat on the patio of his summer home on Long Island, the beach grass rippling in the wind behind him. Simon was talking tough about drugs. "It's about time the athletes understand we mean business," he said. "This is a problem that is going to destroy the international Olympic movement if we allow it to continue. It's an evil and we are going to stamp it out. The athletes are going to find out that the game is over."

The game may or may not be over, but after last week's events, it's no longer being ignored. Even as Simon spoke, the IX Pan Am Games were proceeding apace in Caracas amid the turmoil of one of the broadest, most heavily publicized drug scandals ever to hit amateur sports. Biochemistry had quickly supplanted baloncesto and beisbol as the focus of attention at the games, which had become a cacophony of misinformation and chaos. By the end of competition Sunday night, 11 weightlifters, a bicyclist, a fencer, a sprinter and a shotputter—15 athletes, all male, from the U.S., Cuba, Canada, Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Chile and the Dominican Republic—had been disqualified; urinalysis tests administered to them by the games' state-of-the-art doping-control lab had detected traces of one or more of the nearly 100 substances—ranging from eye drops to anabolic steroids—banned by the International Olympic Committee. Among those caught was America's top Olympic weightlifting prospect, Jeff Michels, who was found to have too high a level of testosterone. The possibility remained that more disqualifications would be announced this week.

Never before had drug tests trapped so many at a single event, prompting rumors that the equipment and procedures being used in Caracas were part of a new, more sophisticated technology. That was untrue. "The identical machinery and methods have been used for several years," said Dr. Manfred Donike, who, along with members of his staff from the Cologne, West Germany, College of Sports, was performing the tests. Yet confusion about the testing led to a variety of disturbing happenings.

On Tuesday morning 12 U.S. track and field athletes flew home. One of them, pole vaulter Mike Tully, would return three days later. Meanwhile, at the Stadio Olimpico, a suspiciously large number of track and field athletes either were scratched from their events or withdrew with sudden "injuries," presumably to avoid the risk of being tested. Several of those in the throwing events, facing automatic testing if they won, performed comically—or pathetically—below their capabilities. Since all winners were tested (as were a smattering of other athletes chosen at random), they obviously were hoping to stay out of the caldron by going into the tank.

The developments cast a shadow on all of track and field. The long-standing rumors of widespread drug use in the sport seemed to be confirmed all at once. Suddenly sounding distressingly plausible was the statement made by world-record-holding hurdler Edwin Moses that 50% or more of America's world-class track and field athletes were using drugs to try to improve their performances. "I didn't want to believe that," said U.S. hurdler James King last week. "After this, I have to."

But the Pan Am fiasco had other amateur athletes throughout the world wondering what to believe—and hoping that the questions raised in Caracas will be answered before Los Angeles, 1984: Will the widespread use of performance-improving drugs at last be eradicated through high-technology testing, as Simon claims will be the case? Had those 12 Americans who left Caracas been part of a setup by the USOC to be some kind of example to the rest of the world, as most of them believed? Or did the whole embarrassing affair result from mismanagement, misinformation and poor communications between U.S. team officials and the athletes in their charge?

"We protected their rights to the best of our ability," says Simon of those 12 Americans. As for Michels and other athletes who were disqualified, Simon says, "The fact is, they broke the law, and the fact is, they knew what the law was, and the fact is that they knew what the penalty was. And them's the rules, so don't complain if you get caught. No sympathy here, thank you." Simon was adamant on the point. "They have been warned time and time again," he said repeatedly last week. "It's about time they understood we mean business."

Simon's claim that athletes knew months in advance about the strictness of the Pan Am testing irked many of the Americans. "How could anyone know that we were warned unless he was there to see us get warned?" countered shotputter Ian Pyka, one of those who flew home on Tuesday. However, according to Pete Cava, spokesman for The Athletics Congress, the U.S. governing body for track and field, the top eight finishers in each event at the national championships in June received a three-page memo listing the five categories of banned substances and noting that testing would be done at all major summer meets, including the Pan Am Games, with a special warning against usage of "eye drops, nose drops or cold remedies." Of course, not all the Pan Am team members were among the top eight at the TAC nationals. Pyka, for instance, finished ninth.

Also, Larry Ellis, the 1984 Olympic men's coach, sent a letter to major track coaches and clubs warning about testing at summer meets. "The testing," Ellis wrote, "is of such a sophisticated nature that...drug use six months prior to the day of the test can be verified."

However, many U.S. athletes insist they were not told of the strictness of the testing until they had gathered at a pre-Pan Am Games camp in Hollywood, Fla. in the first weeks of August. At that time, few in the U.S. delegation had even seen the Caracas lab, and there was talk that because of organizational problems in Venezuela, there might not be any testing at all. The main source of information for the athletes was Dr. Evie Dennis, U.S. chief of mission for the games, who had heard about the lab while doing advance work in Caracas. "I knew then they weren't fooling around," she says. "I called and told [U.S. team manager] Joe [Vigil], 'I don't know if anyone of yours is taking drugs. I don't have any reason to think so, but if anyone is or has, tell him for God's sake go home.' "

Amateur athletes have long heard scare stories about tough drug tests, and except for rare instances they have always remained that—scare stories. Some athletes jokingly refer to them as "sink tests," because the carefully obtained urine samples invariably end up showing nothing and being poured down the sink. " 'Hey, it can't go six months back [to check for steroids]'—that's what I heard people saying," says sprinter Jackie Washington.

Whatever else is true, it's clear that the athletes had heard at least something about potentially strict testing by the time they arrived in Caracas. Then on Monday, Aug. 22, came blunt warnings about it. In meetings with American doctors and coaches less than 48 hours before track and field competition was to begin, the athletes were told that the urinalysis equipment set up in Caracas was the most sophisticated and sensitive ever used, that it could detect illegal substances put into their bodies years earlier, perhaps at any point in their lives. "These doctors came with facts," recalls Pyka. "In the past, everything was hearsay."

Never mind that the doctors' "facts" were mostly incorrect, and that by week's end the U.S. would be suffering one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of amateur sports in this country; at least the doctors made the athletes sit up and listen. Says King, "A lot of guys got scared."

The athletes' fears increased considerably when it was announced on Monday that seven weightlifters had tested positive for steroids. The lifters would not only be stripped of 12 newly won Pan Am medals, but in all likelihood lose their 1984 Olympic eligibility as well. One of them, Cuba's Daniel Nuñez, would also lose a world record. Suddenly rumors were swirling around Caracas. At least 40 athletes had already been caught, went one. Another had it that the testing equipment could indeed trace drug use back to childhood. Another: This was a premeditated crackdown, designed to rid all amateur sports of drug use before the '84 Olympics. Not surprisingly, when U.S. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Roy Bergman and head track Coach John Randolph arranged a Monday afternoon briefing session to explain the testing procedures, some 20 members of the men's team showed up.

"If you have any doubts about your own case," Randolph told them, "you can choose to go home." One of those with doubts was Pyka. Fearing he might test positive because he had taken an over-the-counter decongestant, Sudafed, for a sinus problem he'd developed two weeks earlier, Pyka had already decided to leave. Would a test find lingering traces of Sudafed in his system? If so, would he be disqualified—and thereby lose his Olympic eligibility? U.S. team doctors, not entirely certain what the testing equipment could or could not find, would not give him a satisfactory answer. Nor would the doctors advise javelin thrower Duncan Atwood, who was also concerned about Sudafed, or sprinter Brady Grain, who had been taking medication for strep throat.

"I began to talk to the coaches," says Atwood. "They weren't sure, so we tried to talk to the doctors. And the doctors weren't sure either." Says Pyka, "All we knew was that guys were going down like flies before us in the weightlifting." And that wasn't encouraging. At 9 o'clock Tuesday morning, just seven hours before the opening of the track competition, Pyka, Atwood and 10 teammates boarded Pan Am Flight 218 for New York.

Their departure was shocking enough. What was equally difficult to believe was the way the USOC handled it. The 12 athletes—Pyka, Atwood, Tully, Crain, Dave McKenzie, the U.S. record holder in the hammer throw, triple-jumper Mike Marlow, shotputter Jesse Stuart, discus throwers Paul Bishop and Greg McSeveney, hammer thrower John McArdle, long-jumper Randy Williams, and hurdler Mark Patrick—had put their trust in their coaches and the USOC staff. "I found out these tests were very strong and were picking up allergy medicine...and, of course, the steroids," says Atwood. "Then I heard that wasn't true, that they were only picking up steroids. Then I heard, no, the tests were picking up everything. So there was an information problem." Says Pyka, "It was like going into a dark cave, not knowing whether there is something in it or not."

The athletes assumed, naively, that they would be able to leave Caracas quietly, no questions asked, without media coverage. Not so. A van full of reporters and TV cameramen followed them as they left the athletes' village by bus at 6:30 a.m., and even more greeted them at Simon Bolivar Airport. "They filmed us and tried to ask questions like 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' " says Atwood. Such attention was nothing compared to what they would receive at home. The story was front-page news and on all the newscasts. All of this added to the athletes' feelings of betrayal.

As the 12 were leaving Venezuela, Dennis was addressing a press conference on behalf of the USOC. "Their individual decisions to withdraw should not be taken as an implication of guilt," she said. But the remainder of Dennis' statement—a condemnation of drug use and praise for the strict Pan Am testing—clearly implied such guilt and left the impression that the point of the exercise was to make an example of the Caracas 12. (Or 13, as the USOC incorrectly reckoned it, adding decathlete Gary Bastien—who had injured his leg but never did leave—to the list of departees.) Vigil told a Caracas newspaper later that day, "I think it's pretty obvious why they went home. We've realized for a long time that sensitive testing would turn away athletes. It's really too bad." But should it have been assumed that all 12 (or 13 or 11, since Tully, fed up with his harassment back in the States, returned and won Friday's pole vault competition with a jump of 17'10½") had been using steroids or other drugs? The Western press formed that impression. And here is how Moscow handled the news: Sovietsky Sport said the U.S. athletes withdrew because "they were frightened that their drug habits might be exposed." Tass reported that U.S. athletes now expect medical experts to work with the USOC to find "new and better methods of deception" to avoid detection of drugs. Tass made no mention of the disqualified Cubans.

None of the 12 Americans admitted to steroid use. Williams said he left Caracas because his wife had recently given birth. Patrick claimed he had a shoulder injury. Tully cited "personal business." "I don't doubt that some of the reasons were legitimate," says Ellis. "I don't doubt that some of them were on steroids."

As their flight carried them toward New York, the athletes moved about the aisles, visiting with each other, thinking—erroneously—that the worst was over. But they also talked conspiracy theory. One athlete said, "The word was that the medical staff from the Pan Am Games called the USOC in the United States and talked to a doctor regarding the testing procedure and what to do about any athlete who may have a problem. They were told by that doctor, 'Let them get caught.' "

Says Pyka, "The more we talked, the more it looked like we were set up." Atwood was surprised by the uncommon helpfulness of USOC officials. "It was very easy for me to leave," Atwood says. "[I was told] 'We have a ticket for you, we have flights for you.' " And then, says McKenzie, "The press was waiting for us. It was a little too much of a coincidence." Some of the athletes felt that because they were "third string" they were expendable, while the U.S.'s best—those who competed at the World Championships in Helsinki—were protected. Their guess was that if there was a plot, or a cover-up, Simon was directing it, motivated by a desire to wipe out drug use for all time. They were certain that Simon had known for months about the stringent testing planned for Caracas and thus bore the responsibility for failing to give them adequate warning.

They may have been giving Simon too much credit. At any rate, even as the athletes traded theories in the aircraft's coach section, Simon was sitting in first class on the very same plane. Though Simon had had reservations on the flight for months, his departure from Caracas just as the U.S. team was becoming embroiled in a major controversy seemed somehow inappropriate. "We were trying to figure out who he was and what he looked like," said Atwood. "Nobody had the nerve to go up and talk to him. In my opinion, he had a lot to do with the misinformation that was flying around."

Misinformation was bountiful. On Tuesday afternoon four more lifters were disqualified, including Michels, whose testosterone measurement exceeded the legal limit set for the games. Said Michels, who had won three gold medals in the 242-pound class, "We were told that steroids is the only thing they look for, but that other things"—he cited Visine and hemorrhoid creams—"could screw up the results." Which sounds like something other than a precise medical explanation.

"I told a member of the weightlifting staff all the details of the testing," says Bergman, refusing to name the staff member. "He said he would pass it on to the team members. I now believe his recommendations to them differed in some portions from mine."

The treatment of the U.S. weightlifting team in Caracas included another unorthodoxy. Unlike any other American athletes at the games, a group of 10 lifters were tested for steroids before the competition. Eight of the 10 tested positive. The eight weren't identified, but at least some of them competed anyway. All apparently avoided being tested following competition—thanks to the combination of luck and their failure to win. Interestingly enough, Michels had tested negative before the competition both for anabolic steroids and testosterone, according to his coaches.

No one has challenged the IOC's list of banned substances. Many U.S. athletes, after all, have long claimed that they need to use steroids just to keep up with the Russians and East Germans. But even if, as Simon says, the American athletes were warned about testing well in advance of Caracas, they could not have been given complete, accurate information about the nature of the testing. Through the very end of the Pan Am Games, much of what U.S. athletes, coaches and doctors persisted in believing about the testing machinery and procedures was simply wrong. As Donike said, and contrary to what most everyone in Caracas thought, the $200,000 worth of equipment used there—two mass spectrometers, four gas chromatographs and two computer printout machines, all American-made by Hewlett-Packard—was virtually identical to that used to test athletes in Helsinki and at last year's soccer World Cup in Madrid. Donike was also in charge of those two labs. "Absolutely nothing is being done differently here," he said.

But U.S. officials and athletes kept insisting that there had to be differences, particularly since at Helsinki no one had tested positive for any banned substances. "We'd been told that this was the same testing situation as at Helsinki," said Atwood. "But Dr. Bergman was saying that was not true." Bergman was under the impression that the sophisticated equipment could detect steroid use as far back in a subject's life as the testers wished, to birth if applicable, while Donike—who presumably knew what he was talking about—said the drugs could not be detected more than three months after they were discontinued. Even at week's end Bergman was saying, "The equipment here is calibrated differently from Helsinki. This is much more sensitive."

"There is no such calibration," responded Donike. "There is no dial you can turn, no 'sensitivity 1,' 'sensitivity 6,' 'sensitivity 10.' "

Yet if the machinery was no different, why were so many athletes caught?

"Maybe because they were stupid, you know," said Donike.

"There's always an ongoing struggle between the athletes and the chemists," said Dr. Anthony Daly, medical director of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. "And most times, I'd say, the athletes are a little bit ahead. But I think this time the chemists came up first."

A major disadvantage to U.S. athletes at an event like the Pan Am Games is that they have rarely experienced any kind of drug testing while competing at home. TAC, for example, has steadfastly refused to test athletes, even at national championship meets. On May 4, Dennis wrote to TAC Executive Director Ollan Cassell: "It seems to me that our concern with results...and our reluctance to carry out the testing because of what we may find is an open admission that this [illegal drug use] is occurring and indeed that we are condoning same."

Not only has Dennis pushed for testing, so have the medical committees of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) and the IOC. The U.S. has been more lax than Western European countries in testing for drugs, and at the end of last week Donike said, "I hope that some in the United States have learned a lesson."

On Long Island, Simon said that the USOC, using powers granted it by Congress under the Sports Act of 1978, would assume full responsibility for the testing of American athletes. "We need a uniform procedure, a procedure that everybody understands, [so] that everybody knows what's banned, who's going to be tested and what's going to be done after."

But should it have taken such an embarrassing situation to force Simon to take action? Says 1984 Olympic women's track and field Coach Brooks Johnson: "Everybody in any responsible position in amateur athletics, particularly in Olympics, knows that drugs have been a problem. To take this aggressive stance all of a sudden seems to be a dime late and a dollar short."

The USOC's move into drug testing may be interpreted by some national governing bodies as an encroachment onto their own turf. Advised that drug testing will no longer be TAC's prerogative, Cava said, "Mr. Simon apparently knows more about the rules of international track and field than we do, I guess." But does TAC acknowledge this assumption of power by the USOC? "Beats me," said Cava. "The guy [Simon] says a lot of stuff that leads anybody who's in sports to kinda sit there and say, 'Wait a minute. What is he talking about?' "

"TAC is going to be a problem anyway, because they always are," said Simon, adding that "one can view a conflict of interest in the national governing bodies doing their own testing." Asked if he planned to confer with TAC's Cassell in setting up the testing, Simon said, "I have absolutely no idea.... What I say stands anyway, so it doesn't make any difference."

Simon said he would appoint "a group of experts," including Bergman, to recommend testing procedures.

"This has been a time bomb waiting to explode—everybody knew that this abuse was occurring," said Simon. "We did a lot of talking about it and now [it's] time for action.... I promise you that we are going to have the procedures in place that to the best of all of our ability will end this evil once and for all."

Let us all hope so.

PHOTOMichels lost three gold medals after testing revealed an excessive testosterone ratio. PHOTOUSOC President Simon said, "The athletes are going to find out the game is over." PHOTOTest procedures at Caracas were the same as those used at the World Championships. PHOTODonike said the U.S. had been lax in testing athletes for drugs. PHOTOPyka chose to go home rather than jeopardize his Olympic hopes because of cold pills. TWO PHOTOSBergman (above) said no drug would go undetected. Dennis implied the departing Americans were guiltless. PHOTOTully journeyed 9,000 miles in three days, then won the gold medal in the pole vault.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)