UP FRONT

DESERT PLAGUE

August 23 2004
UP FRONT

DESERT PLAGUE

August 23 2004

DOPING

The drug scandal that won’t go away

ATHENS'04

CHARLIE GILLIS

HE WAS, UNTIL recently, the fastest man in the world, and he still might be able to outrun the doping police. But on a sun-splashed track in Sacramento, Calif.—with even normally supportive NBC announcers voicing doubts about his future—Tim Montgomery’s troubles caught up with him. In the 100-m final of last month’s U.S. track and field Olympic trials, the explosive sprinter from South Carolina clocked a dismal 10.13 seconds, good for only seventh in the race and

too slow to qualify for the Summer Games in Athens. It was far enough off Montgomery’s world-record time of 9.78 to reinforce suspicions that he was using banned drugs when he set the mark back in 2002. And the court of public opinion was quick to judge: as Montgomery tried to leave the field, pushing his way through a crush of reporters, a cynical spectator was heard grumbling as he passed: “I don’t want to follow no loser.”

FIVE-RING FACTS The International Olympic Committee isn’t just banning drug cheats. Last week, Mohamad Hasan of Indonesia was expelled as an IOC member on corruption charges. And the IOC also suspended Bulgaria’s Ivan Slavkov pending an investigation into his alleged involvement in vote-brokering for cities bidding for the 2012 Games.

Whether they’re stressed out by controversy, or whether they really did need drugs to excel, America’s sullied track stars are fading faster than their legal options, and fans are catching a strong whiff of their desperation. Montgomery was one of several runners implicated in the burgeoning U.S. doping scandal who mysteriously failed to make the cut in Sacramento. Joining him on the sidelines are Chryste Gaines, a former national 100-m outdoor champion, and Alvin Harrison, the 2000 Olympic silver medallist in the 400 m. Kelli White, the 2003100-m world

champion, had already been banned from the sport for two years, and middle-distance runner Michelle Collins withdrew during the Olympic trials in Sacramento, citing a hamstring injury. She had already been notified by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that she faces a lifetime ban from her sport.

The damage spread further in late July, when reports surfaced that Montgomery’s girlfriend, sprinter Marion Jones, was accused by her ex-husband of taking human growth hormone when she won five medals

at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Jones, who has hotly denied using drugs, managed to qualify for Athens in the long jump, but suffered a similar fall-off in performance on the track at the U.S. trials, placing fifth in the 100 m and pulling out of the 200 m altogether.

None of this seems like cause to celebrate. As with any publicity disaster, there’s a fine line in the war against performanceenhancing drugs between exposing suspected cheats and deepening public cynicism. While

initial impressions of the now-famous investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative suggested a handful of guilty athletes-the “bad-apple” theory advanced by U.S. track officials—it has since become clear that drug misconduct has been running rampant in the athletic world. Criminal investigations have connected amateur and professional sports stars alike to BALCO, the San Francisco-area maker of dietary supplements that is accused of distributing the previously undetectable steroid THG. And drug interdiction is fast becoming the theme of the Athens Games: since July 1, eight competitors from she nations have been barred for doping violations. That doesn’t include Kostas Kederis and Ekaterini Thanou, the Greek track stars who, in a bizarre drama last week, missed their pre-competition drug tests, then wound up in hospital after a motorcycle accident.

Now, at last, the prevalence of doping appears to be sinking in with the American public. An Associated Press poll published in April found that some 92 per cent of Americans consider steroids a problem in sport, with 43 per cent describing it as a major problem. In last January’s State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said doping athletes mislead youngsters into thinking “there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character.” Framing the issue as one of moral fibre and national pride is exactly what anti-doping officials hope to do. “I do a lot of talk shows in the venison belt in the U.S.,” says Dick Pound, head of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency, and member of the International Olympic Committee. “It’s amazing. They’re starting to say, ‘Hey, that’s not America.’ ” At the same time, it’s part of Pound’s job as a member of the Olympic movement to keep public concern from hardening into cynicism. Racking up doping convictions won’t be enough, he knows; sporting authorities have to convince their worldwide audience-especially Americans—that the athletes they’re watching are clean.

That’s more complicated than it sounds. While sporting authorities are working overtime to restore public faith, there’s a small

but influential school of critics who believe an audience exodus is just what the athletic world needs. Chief among them is Chuck Yesalis, a health policy professor and steroids expert from Penn State University in University Park, Pa., who describes Pound and national anti-doping agencies as “the Baghdad Bobs” of sport—military officials who claim to be winning the war when enemy tanks are rolling through their streets. Sporting officials, he argues, have little incentive to expose the true breadth of the doping problem, and won’t until fans start voting with their feet.

Yesalis does view the BALCO case as progress. “I see aggressive police action as the best hope,” he says, noting that the U.S. TV audience for the Sacramento trials declined 20 per cent from a similar broadcast before the 2000 Summer Games. But the big test comes this week in Athens. “Will all this controversy cause people to become curious and come watch their TV?” Yesalis says. “Or will people just think athletes are a bunch of druggies, and that they’re not going to waste their time?”

If fans do tune out, the reverberations undoubtedly will reach all the way to the professional leagues, which are widely viewed as the next front in the war on doping. Many critics believe pro sports have turned a blind eye to performance-enhancing substances over the past two decades, while their players morphed into muscle-bound giants.

Professional basketball and baseball only recently introduced random testing for steroids and stimulants, while the National Football League has had year-round testing for 14 years. The National Hockey League has no drug testing at all, and none of the pro leagues’ anti-doping programs conform to World Anti-Doping Agency standards.

The result, says Bruce Kidd, dean of physical education at the University of Toronto, is a mixed message for young athletes. “The distance still to be covered is significant,” he says, “and that won’t change until the pro leagues, and particularly the pro athletes’ associations and unions, accept that the standard of excellence in sport is drug-free.” But Kidd, a former middle-distance runner who represented Canada at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, maintains hope. He’s been pleasantly surprised by the newly aggressive stance of the U.S. authorities, and believes athletes are generally more aware of the health risks posed by performanceenhancing substances than they were before the BALCO case.

How fans will react over the long haul remains to be seen. The man who called Montgomery a “loser” in Sacramento didn’t say what prompted his outburst, and it’s rather tempting to speculate. Was it because Montgomery may have taken drugs, setting a poor example for aspiring athletes and bringing disgrace upon his country? Or was it just because he didn’t win? lí1]

ON THE WEB For more Summer Games coverage, including daily updates, photo galleries, reader polls and more, visit www.macleans.ca/athens2004.