OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

The Olympic Drug Cloud

Andrew Phillips October 9 2000
OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

The Olympic Drug Cloud

Andrew Phillips October 9 2000

The Olympic Drug Cloud

OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Andrew Phillips

Which was the true face of illegal drug use at the Sydney Games? Was it the tearstained visage of C. J. Hunter, the six-foot-one, 330-lb. shot-putter, invariably described as “hulking,” as he pleaded for understanding and assured the world that he would never do anything to harm his wife, superstar sprinter Marion Jones?

Or was it the perky, defiant face of Andreea Raducan, the elfin Romanian gymnast who at four-foot-ten and 82 lb., looked like something Hunter might effortlessly send soaring across a shot-put field?

According to Olympic officials last week, the answer, of course, was both. Hunter, it was revealed, had tested positive four times before the Games for the banned steroid nandrolone. He had already taken himself off the U.S. Olympic team, supposedly because of a bad knee, but the suspicions swirling around him inevitably cast a long shadow over Jones’s historic attempt to win five gold medals for running and jumping. That was supposed to provide the drama of the Games’ final week—her so-called drive for five that ended with her taking three golds and two bronzes. Instead, no one could watch her flying around the Olympic track without wondering: did she know? And, if so, did she care? There was little sympathy for Hunter, despite his tears, as he proclaimed his devotion to Jones: even he acknowledged that “I can be downright mean,” and he enlisted O. J. Simpson’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, in his defence. But Raducan provided the other side of the drug story. Five days before she turned 17, she won gold in the women’s all-round gymnastics event —only to have her medal taken away when she tested positive for pseudoephedrine, a stimulant present in two cold tablets given to her by her team doctor. She said they didn’t help her; they even “made me dizzy.” Olympic officials praised her as “a fine young elite athlete”—but said they could not compromise in the fight against doping. How the banned substance got into her body, they ruled, was not relevant. The point was that it was there and could have given her an edge in competition. As for Raducan, she didn’t flinch. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” she said. “Where is my medal?”

So were Sydney’s Olympics the Shame Games or the

Were these the Shame Gamesor the start of a real crackdown on doping?

Tainted Games, as overheated commentators quickly wrote? Or were they the Crackdown Games, the Games that finally saw a serious fight against the use of banned performanceenhancing substances among the world’s top athletes, as Olympic officials insisted?

The numbers can support both arguments. By the end of last week, more than 35 athletes had been expelled from the Games after testing positive, or prevented from taking part because they flunked pre-competition drug tests. They included Bulgarian and Taiwanese weightlifters, an Egyptian wrestler, a British cyclist, a German runner, plus an equestrian (Eric Lamaze) and a hammer thrower (Robin Lyons) from Canada. Hammer thrower Mihaela Melin te of Romania was even taken off the field just as she was about to make her first throw because she came up positive for steroids before the Games. China dropped 27 athletes from its team before leaving for Sydney.

By contrast, only two competitors were expelled from the 1996 Atlanta Games because of drugs. There is no evidence that more athletes are using banned substances—but plenty to suggest that drug testers are finally nailing the cheaters and keeping others from even showing up at the Games. Last year, international sports organizations set up a new, independent organization, the World Anti-Doping Agency, to lead the fight. Its experts co-ordinated drug testing in Sydney, checking every medal winner and conducting more than 1,500 random tests on other athletes.

The result: more disgraced competitors. It looked bad in Sydney—but it may set a new tone for future competitions. “It’s a bad thing for these Games,” said Prince Albert of

Monaco, a member of the International Olympic Committee involved in drug testing. “But it is a good thing that we catch these people. It shows that our controls and our tests are efficient.” Added IOC director-general François Carrard: “The fight against doping has very seriously intensified. This means some tougher provisions, more accountability.”

Drug use among athletes may be the oldest story at the Olympics—ancient Greeks sought out magic potions to help them win laurels in the original version of the Games. The new twist in Sydney was the identity of those under suspicion. Many expelled athletes, like the bulked-up weightlifters and shot-putters from eastern Europe, fit old stereotypes. But the team at the centre of the fiercest controversy came from the country that has been loudest in calling for a crackdown

on doping: the United States. After Hunter’s positive tests for nandrolone were revealed, the international track-and-field federation, the LAAF, said that 15 to 20 U.S. athletes tested positive before the Olympics, but it wasn’t informed. Worse, LAAF officials accused the United States of covering up abuses among its own team members.

The accusation stung—especially since the Americans have taken the lead in lecturing other countries about the need to get drugs out of sports. Olympic officials, led by IOC vice-president Richard Pound of Montreal, pointedly advised the U.S. Olympic Team to live up to the standards it wants to set for others. The Americans, Pound said, “are in a state of denial.” And Pound ridiculed Hunter’s claim that he tested positive for nandrolone because it was present in an iron supplement he was taking. It turned out that Hunter had 1,000 times the permitted level of the steroid. With that amount, joked Pound, “he’d be pretty rusty.”

By week’s end, U.S. Olympic Committee chief Norman Blake claimed the beleaguered team was a victim of a “witch-hunt atmosphere” at the Games. He insisted that no American athlete who tested positive was competing in Sydney. But the pressure was clearly on: the U.S. track-and-field team announced that it will set up an independent commission to review the doping accusations, chaired by Richard McLaren, a professor of law at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., who served as an arbitrator at the 1998 Winter Games. The team agreed to hand over details of positive drug tests on its athletes to the new commission—including their names—despite its policy of keeping their identities confidential until a second test confirms that they have violated drug rules. The idea, said Blake, is “to satisfy all the folks who think we’re hiding something.”

Olympic officials may have started to deal seriously with their drug problem in Sydney, but the clouds over the American team show they have a long way to go. The Olympic movement faces a change in leadership with the scheduled retirement next year of its longtime president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, and drugs will be a top priority. In Sydney, leading corporate sponsors of elite athletes voiced concern that the Games could be fatally undermined if the public decides that it cannot believe what it is seeing—that the amazing sprinter or awesome jumper is a product of pharmacology rather than genetics, coaching and hard work. But with luck and leadership, Sydney could be remembered as the city that finally launched a serious fight against drugs in sports. ESI