The Olympic shames


Associated Press

SYDNEY, Australia – It began with an opening-ceremony promise from Australian hockey player Rechelle Hawkes, speaking for all the 11,000 athletes competing at the Olympics. No drugs, she vowed as the world watched. No doping.

No deal.

Sydney wanted these Summer Games to be remembered as “the best ever,” as International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch is expected to put it. And they have been magnificent in many ways – most, even. But forever attached to them may be a less distinguished moniker that makes Aussies cringe.

“The Sydney Games,” lamented the national newspaper The Australian, “are in danger of being remembered as the Drugs Olympics.”

A new, unwanted Olympic vocabulary has taken hold during the past 10 days. The obscure has become the headline: Nandrolone. Furosemide. Pseudoephedrine. Stanozolol. And hovering behind them all, a shorter, less technical word: cheat.

Rumors swirl when an athlete wins by a huge margin or drops out without explanation. Questions are kicking around – nonathletic ones that would furrow the brow of any Sydney organizer.

Should Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan have been stripped of her gold for cold medicine? Is the United States covering up track and field doping? Is a Bulgarian kayaker using steroids? Is the IOC doing all it can to stop drugs – or just going errantly overboard?

Most importantly, are there more athletes doping, or does it just look that way because more are getting caught?

The IOC, which has made a big deal out of intensified anti-doping efforts it instituted earlier this year, says the Olympics are cleaner than ever thanks to the crackdown. And Samaranch isn’t shy about taking credit.

“I believe that you should congratulate us every time a doping athlete is discovered,” he was quoted as saying.

Then congratulations are in order.

Three Bulgarian weightlifters lost medals – a gold, a silver and a bronze – after testing positive for furosemide, a diuretic that can mask steroid presence. Then, in quick succession: a Latvian rower (nandrolone); Raducan (pseudoephedrine, the cold medicine); and a Russian runner (stanozolol, another steroid).

“Six positive drug tests in an Olympics is not an epidemic,” said IOC vice president Dick Pound. “If you read anywhere, or hear anywhere, that these are the drug-tainted Olympics, that is just not so.”

ToSday, hours before the closing ceremony, the IOC announced two more drug positives, both for nandrolone, including one that stripped the bronze medal from an Armenian heavyweight lifter.

But those eight are merely the athletes disqualified after competition.

Forty-one would-be Olympians were caught cheating before they ever reached Sydney. Nine were thrown out after they got here – including Romanian hammer thrower Mihaela Melinte, escorted from the track as she was about to compete.

National Olympic committees were feeling pressure long before the Olympics. Of the pregames disqualifications, 27 were from China, which cut them as part of a “long-term, tough and complicated” doping crackdown. No Chinese athlete has tested positive so far at the games.

“I am resolutely opposed to using abnormal or unfair competitive methods to achieve good results,” says Yuan Weimin, head of China’s Olympic team. “In the past, the present and the future China will struggle to the end.”

The United States is coming under harsh criticism, too. After officials disclosed runner Marion Jones’ husband, behemoth shot-putter C.J. Hunter, had tested positive for steroids at a July competition, USA Track and Field found itself accused of a wider doping coverup. It has denied the allegations but has proposed turning its drug testing over to an independent agency.

Most controversial has been the Raducan case, which even the IOC has called an unfortunate mistake on the gymnast’s part.

The 16-year-old was given cold medicine by her team doctor that, without her knowledge, contained a banned substance that almost certainly didn’t enhance – and could have impeded – her performance. She had to return her all-around gold medal, Romania’s first since Nadia Comaneci’s in 1976.

The waiflike Raducan was the ideal protagonist, and a sea of protest followed. “Branded for life as a cheat,” one headline lamented.

The IOC, while admitting sympathy, said rules were rules. An appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport failed. Romanians demonstrated in the streets; their Olympic chief, Ion Tiriac, said he’d resign rather than ban her at home as regulations required.

“We’re talking about an aspirin,” Tiriac said, sincere if a bit inaccurate. “I accept procedures. But somehow, somewhere, don’t we miss the point?”

The quandary mirrored one that has long bothered democracies that battle drugs: They want a zero-tolerance approach that is tough on offenders, but also want to prevent the innocent and the inadvertent from being swept away in a rush to judgment.

“The attitude of Western societies, the strict liability approach, is infiltrating the sports movement,” says Jamie Nettleton, a Sydney lawyer who has advised many of Australia’s sports organizations on drug-related matters.

“Is it right? I don’t know. There may not be a right in this,” he says. “But what is important is the tradition of sports, which is that cheats shouldn’t win. And unfortunately, some people suffer as a result.”

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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