Wonder Down Under

Sydney was the scene of brilliant fireworks in the air and at the venues, even as the shadow of drugs darkened these Games and the future of the Olympics
Sydney was the scene of brilliant fireworks in the air and at the venues, even as the shadow of drugs darkened these Games and the future of the Olympics
October 08, 2000

Workmen paused as the sun climbed the sky on the morning before the 24th Summer Games. Odd, this was. There were all those feet and wheels and hooves about to stampede across the floor in the opening ceremonies, all those vaulters and foot racers and spear flingers thundering in a few days later, all that security outside the stadium to keep intruders away. Yet here was this balding, bespectacled man on the track, circling it again and again, looking more bent and bony each time around. What was he doing on the world's biggest stage at a moment like this? What was he running to—or running from?

Every four years for the last four decades the old man had sneaked his way, begged his way, hook-or-crooked his way into an Olympic stadium the day before the opening ceremonies and run 10,000 meters. Nobody could quite figure John Lucas out, not even his wife back in State College, Pa., but now that nearly three weeks have passed and the Sydney Games are done, I think I understand. He was doing both: he was running to and running from.

He was running from what would happen two days later at Sydney Airport, when 40 minutes after the Qatari weightlifters had disembarked from their flight from Singapore, officials began wondering why several members of the team still hadn't reached the customs checkpoint. Agents walked down the long white corridor that leads to their counter and approached a bathroom from which two men in tracksuits, both bearing Qatari names and passports but speaking Bulgarian—one a team official and the other a superheavyweight named Jaber Salem—had just exited. They'd been part of Bulgaria's B team, purchased for $1 million last year by the oil-rich emirate and converted into Qataris to bring glory and gold medals to the shores of the Persian Gulf.

The agents opened the bathroom door and recoiled. Inside, they found heavyweight Said Asaad, two empty syringes and a floor covered with urine. Asaad would leave Sydney a few weeks later wearing a bronze medal.

Were the Qataris in that bathroom injecting a diuretic that would hastily flush out their steroid-tainted urine, in case an ambush drug test awaited them? Were they injecting clean urine into their bladders so they could trick the lab? Whatever the weightlifters were doing, customs officials could find no trace of drugs, and the Qataris were free to join the world's celebration of peace, humanity and sportsmanship, where 39 drug users would be expelled or forbidden to compete; where the entire American track and field team would fall under suspicion; where Marion Jones's quest for five medals would be sullied by revelations of her husband's positive tests for nandrolone; where the Bulgarian weightlifting team would be expelled after three members were stripped of medals for passing urine laced with a diuretic that could be used to lose weight and to mask the presence of steroids; where two other Qatari weightlifters would hastily withdraw, citing sudden cases of diarrhea. How could so many young men and women piss and crap all over such a beautiful thing?

"The vulgarity!" the old man would seethe. "The overwhelming vulgarity!"

Nearly halfway through his ritual run, John Lucas began to suffer. His 74-year-old joints were stiffening, and the thick, rumpled rug that had been laid over the track kept tripping him. He was running on a right leg snapped so savagely by a football tackle when he was 16 that the doctor told him he would never run again. That's not true, the boy had said, but all he had for proof was the book by his bed, the one he had nearly memorized, about a 1,500-meter runner named Glenn Cunningham who had won an Olympic silver in 1936 after nearly dying from burns in a schoolhouse fire as a Kansas farm boy. By the 10th time Lucas had read the tale, he had fallen head over heels in love with the Games.

Lucas ran again, all right, but only to 11th place in the 1952 U.S. Olympic Trials' 10,000 meters, so eight years of scraping and saving later, he'd slipped unnoticed onto the cinder track in Rome the day before the 1960 Summer Games to run the first leg of his odyssey, then trembled at the closing ceremonies when the stadium lights went out and 85,000 people of all continents and colors lit candles in the dark. He'd run his lonely race in Tokyo and Mexico City and Munich and Montreal and Moscow—that one around the outside of Lenin Stadium because Soviet officials were too miffed at the U.S. boycott to let him in. He'd run in Los Angeles and Seoul and Barcelona and Atlanta, and now that the flame has been extinguished here and the Sydney Games are done, I know what it was he was running to.

He was running to the spirit that possessed this city for 17 days, an aura that couldn't possibly have come across on a television set 9,000 miles away. Running to the unrelenting harmony and humor radiating from 47,000 volunteers who turned train directions into ditties, crowd control into dance routines, manure cleanup into synchronized skipping-and-scooping, who passed out candy, mimed passersby's walks, mimicked bird calls and made crammed train platforms feel like a perfectly wonderful place to hold the world's family reunion. Running to a time and place where people came out of their homes and shells, where crime dropped, complaining perished, where you kept shaking your head at this mind-blowingly massive task being pulled off so smoothly and smilingly, and thinking, Boy, mankind is amazing. A place where you kept gulping back emotions, blinking tears from your eyes as an Aboriginal woman outraced everyone in a colossus of a stadium thundering with the roars and hopes of a continent aching to heal a terrible scar. Gulping as a Cuban long jumper took gold on his final leap and dropped, sobbing, to the track. As a tiny Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie, ran down and held off—by a butterfly's eyelash—Kenya's Paul Tergat in the same 10,000 meters that the old man had huffed over. As nearly every Aussie you poured out of the stadium with each night asked if he could help you in any way.

"It's called exhilaration," the old man told me. "The exhilaration of participating in the largest peacetime gathering of the human race!"

His old friend Herbert Weinberg asked him to stop. Surely 5,000 meters, 3.1 miles, was enough for an old man under Sydney's morning sun, but on ran the retired Penn State sports science professor, doused by the shower of water that his pal kept flinging on his head with every lap. Pumping his arms as if something were chasing him, something eating into the big lead he'd built over all those exhilarating moments in packed Olympic stadiums and all those nights back home reading the many books by Olympic founder and dreamer Pierre de Coubertin—in French. The old man pushed through his pain, but on it came.

It was the same beast that devoured the press corps midway through the Sydney Games, the cynicism that had been stalking the last three Summer Olympics and finally ripped into these Games. The daily litany of drug busts was menacing enough, but then came the news leak that Marion Jones's husband, C.J. Hunter—the world-champion shot-putter who had pulled out of the Games allegedly because of knee surgery—had failed four recent drug tests, which hadn't been announced by USA Track & Field (USATF). Then came the accusations of the IOC and the IAAF, the international governing body of track and field, that USATF had covered up 15 other positive drug tests of American athletes beneath the lid of confidentiality and due process. . .and, well, it was all just too much for journalists half the old man's age to outrun. They'd grown sick of glorifying men and women who cheated and of federations that turned a blind eye. How many scribes were still trying to scrub off the septic slime of the 1996 Atlanta Games, at which another woman with a drug-stained husband-mentor, Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, had won gold and headlines only to be caught two years later masking her urine sample with whiskey? How many of the athletes they were lionizing would end up in 10 years with liver and kidney damage, fallow and shrunken uteruses, excruciating hip and back pain, and blind or clubfooted children—the legacy borne by many East German athletes who were fed steroids in the '70s?

Now Jones and her crusade for five golds smelled rank. Now every starting-block TV closeup of her and the other competitors became a chance to study—no, not the determination etched upon their faces but the amount of acne or the length of jawline that might indicate drug use. Now every day's newspaper in Sydney carried a full page, sometimes two, of stories on drug cheats, and every unexpected medal winner sent a black wave of suspicion and rumors rumbling through the press corps. "You can't trust anything anymore," said New York Times writer Jere Longman. "You're a dupe if you do. How do you write about people you don't trust? There's nowhere to turn for wonder."

Tatyana Grigorieva, the Russian turned Australian who came geysering out of a summer of injuries to a stunning silver in the pole vault? That Greek guy, Konstadinos Kederis, who darted out of nowhere to take the men's 200? Dirty urine. Just wait for the announcement, whispered the pack.

Mihaela Melinte, the reigning world champion from Romania, was yanked off the field as the hammer throw was about to begin: A dope test in June had caught up with her. Izabela Dragneva of Bulgaria had been stripped of her weightlifting gold medal the week before. Both events were new ones for women in the Olympics—goodbye to the pipe dream that females in their ever-swelling numbers would reestablish grace and ethics in sports.

"I can pee now if you want me to," flared Gail Devers after coming up lame midway through the 100-meter hurdles semifinals, surprised to find journalists skeptical of a pullout that precluded her having to submit to a test. But so what if she passed the test? There is no effective detector yet for human growth hormone or artificial blood products, so innocence can no more be proved than guilt. So what if the urinalyses of Grigorieva and Kederis proved false? No one was going to be played for a Pollyanna again.

Even the old man. "I am programmed to cheer incredible Olympic feats," he told me. "The Olympics has its own ether, and I'm on that ether when I'm at the Games. I try not to watch them differently than in the past, but I'm incapable of controlling my senses and my mind. I have moments of doubt far more frequently. If the doubt continues this way, not only will I not attend the Olympics, I won't even turn on my TV. We're dealing with a deadly poison, so devastating it could cause the demise of the Olympic Games in the next 15 years. But we can save it, and we must."

With a lap and a half left, John Lucas's friend joined him. Anything to help the old man finish, and at last he did.

Funny, that's what I did on the Games' last night: I ran. Put on my sneakers and jogged down to the harbor, where one million people were gathering to celebrate the biggest and best bash that Australians, or any one else, had ever thrown. As the closing ceremonies at Olympic Park ended and a jet fighter flashed down the length of the harbor, dumping a trail of flame and kicking off the wildest fireworks display you ever saw, I found myself near a pack of 15-year-old Aussie girls, all of them smoking and drinking and staring up at the sky. "I wish the Olympics would never end," one of them said. "I wish it would just go on forever and ever and ever."

The old man's right. There's something the world's got hold of here, something so wondrous that even 15-year-old girls sucking on cigarettes don't want to let it go.

Let's save it. Let's ante up the big money and the will to make the recently established World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) a vast, independent guardian angel of the Games, a drug-detecting body that tests out of competition, all over the world, all year around, and adjudicates the appeals process in no more than five weeks. Let's replace Juan Antonio Samaranch when his term ends next July with an IOC president strong enough to say that the Olympics are the world's party and any country or federation that cares to come must play by the same harsh set of rules. The new law for every athlete: One positive drug test, and you're gone. No more Olympics, ever. One positive, and any world record you ever set goes poof! from the books. One positive, and any Olympic medal you ever won vanishes too, with a new one bestowed on the athlete you cheated. Bestowed, mind you, in front of the world, with the anthem playing and the flag rising, even if it's at the Olympics four years later. Not tucked away where nearly no one sees it, as the IOC thoughtlessly did in Sydney when it stripped gold from the drugged Bulgarian and quietly slipped it to American weightlifter Tara Nott.

Let's do it. Let's celebrate each positive drug test as a victory, rather than a defeat, and applaud the IOC for finally beginning to crack down. Let's hope the old man's wrong when he says that Athens in 2004 is likely to be the last time he'll run at the Games.