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DAMNING OF CHAMPIONS THE SHADOW OF DRUGS ALWAYS LOOMS OVER THE GAMES

DAMNING OF CHAMPIONS THE SHADOW OF DRUGS ALWAYS LOOMS OVER THE GAMES

The clouds have rolled in swiftly, as they do nowadays at these
gatherings. The scene unfolds with a predictable rhythm: March
the athletes into the stadium, light the cauldron and start
dropping steroid innuendo on gold medalists. Three days into the
Games, and already the machinery of mistrust and cynicism is
running at full throttle.

This is an article from the July 22, 1996 issue

A Chinese woman, Le Jingyi, won a gold medal in swimming on
Saturday night, and you could hear the whispers. Chinese
woman...gold medal...steroids. Her victory was instantly
cheapened. And there are still five more days of swimming
competition and eight more of weightlifting, a sport in which
two Iranians and a Russian were discovered to have tested
positive in the days leading up to these Olympics. Wait until
track and field begins on Friday. The damning of champions has
only begun.

Drugs, not just by their actual use but also by the possibility
of their use, have become a sad, central Olympic theme. Gold
medals lead to national anthems, flag raisings and often
assumptions of dirty blood. Bud Greenspan could do an entire
documentary on anabolic steroids and the Olympics. It could
begin with Ben Johnson, the disqualified 1988 100-meter gold
medalist, the most famous Olympic athlete ever foolish enough to
get caught. It could include Gwen Torrence, whose 1992
accusations that two of the women's 100-meter medalists at the
Barcelona Games used drugs badly smudged her reputation. And it
could include all of the Eastern Europeans, Chinese and, yes,
Americans who have won medals amid the same type of veiled
finger-pointing that began here on Saturday.

Even as these Games play out, Australia's national 200-meter
champion, Dean Capobianco, is in the Olympic Village awaiting
word on whether he'll be allowed to compete after allegedly
testing positive for steroids in May. In 1995 the International
Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body for track and
field, handed down 33 four-year steroid suspensions and two
lifetime bans. Most of the athletes who were banned are unknown
to the general public. But does that mean that elite athletes
generally don't use performance-enhancing drugs or that they
have the financial and medical resources to use them without
getting caught?

There is a perception that drug testing has become more
effective. In some twisted way, the seven Chinese swimmers who,
unlike Le, failed to reach the finals over the weekend lend
credence to this thinking. It can be theorized that they
performed badly because they weren't using steroids out of fear
of the drug-testing system here, which is advertised as the most
vigilant in history. And this continues a trend.

World records set between 1986 and 1990 still stand in six track
and field weight events, which are those most affected by
steroid use. Clean athletes consider most of those records
unassailable. It is here that the U.S. finds its most prominent
place in the steroid annals: Mike Stulce and Jim Doehring went
1-2 in the shot put at the Barcelona Olympics, each with a
previous steroid suspension. Shot put world-record holder Randy
Barnes, winner of this year's U.S. Olympic Trials, was suspended
for anabolic steroids in 1990.

And there remains a sense that the bad guys will always run
slightly ahead of the posse, that the drug of choice will simply
change and then move from the shot put to the 200-meter
freestyle, finding the soft spots in sport and bureaucracy the
way a virus finds victims. It might be best to simply do away
with drug testing, letting the athletes take whatever
strength-building, liver-destroying agents they choose. You
would think that a generation of disease would teach the lesson,
eliminating the dirt by natural selection. But of course, that
wouldn't work either: Though most athletes know the risk, if
they were considering taking a drug that would make them faster
or stronger but might also cause their head to fall off, they
would probably take it just the same. There is the lure of fame
and money for them, in desperately short careers. Money, too,
for the nations that systematically encourage drug use.

The problem is irresoluble, unless the science of detection
someday fully catches up to the science of deception. Until
then, because we are a suspicious people and because we know
that many of us will do whatever is required to succeed, the
Olympic Games will always be just slightly tainted.

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Le has never tested positive, but her victory is still questioned. [Le Jingyi]