For the meat-and-potatoes U.S. sports fan, the summer Olympics are
a grand television spectacle that arrives every four years and
makes cardboard cutout heroes of Americans who win gold medals.
In good times or bad, there are always U.S. athletes who step
forward and deliver the gold. The BALCO drug scandal, focused
principally on track and field (and pro sports), has threatened
to clog the medal pipeline for the Athens Games. But in a sense
that's welcome news. If the sudden vigilance of the U.S.
Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and USA Track and Field (USATF) in
banning drug users seems almost hyperactive, it's because they're
trying to undo decades of ill will.
Since the 1960s, when East Germany's government-sponsored doping
and sports machine was born, track and field has operated under
thunderheads of suspicion. "We've reached the point where no
extraordinary performance can take place without the presumption
that somebody has cheated," says Vin Lananna, who coached
Stanford to five NCAA track and field and cross-country
championships between 1996 and 2000 and is now the athletic
director at Oberlin College. The snickers of recognition were
once reserved for supersized Eastern European women. In the 1990s
African men and Chinese women who shattered distance running
records became the subjects of whispered accusations.
Yet by the end of the millennium, the United States had become
the nation whose track and field athletes were most suspected of
widely using banned substances. At the root of the U.S.'s fading
reputation was USATF's policy of not revealing the names of
athletes who had tested positive until their cases had been fully
adjudicated, a process that sometimes took years. As a result,
athletes who had tested positive sometimes participated in
international competition, including 4x400-meter-relay runner
Jerome Young in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. (Unbeknownst to
international track officials, Young had been cleared on appeal
by USATF.) International media sought Young's name for more than
two years with uncommon fervor and at every turn chastised the
U.S. for protecting him. American track athletes were continually
portrayed around the globe as lawless drug abusers.
This reputation can be changed only by drastic action. USADA was
formed in late 2000 and took responsibility for all drug testing
(which had previously been done by the U.S. Olympic Committee).
Last fall, in the wake of the discovery of THG, a designer
steroid that BALCO allegedly provided to athletes, USATF
announced a zero-tolerance drug policy. That's a good--and
overdue--policy, but policy is just paperwork until it is
enforced. In recent weeks, as revelations have flowed forth from
the BALCO scandal, USADA has tightened the screws on suspected
drug users, with the goal of sending a clean team to Athens.
(Even Young's case is nearing its end; a ruling by an
international arbitration panel that could strip Young and his
teammates of their 2000 relay gold is imminent.)
May 30, 2004
It seems certain that more athletes will soon be denied Olympic
spots. The cost is high, for the athletes and for their country,
which so prides itself on Olympic success that it has set a goal
of 100 medals in Athens. Athletes are paying not only for their
own sins but also for the sins of their predecessors, and that is
the only way to make the rest of the world believe that the U.S.
is serious about cleaning up its act. --Tim Layden
"We've reached the point where no extraordinary performance can
take place without the presumption that somebody has cheated."