Breaking the Olympic Habit

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It was another tabloid week for the Olympic movement. At the track-and-field trials in Sacramento, Calif., sprinters Michael Johnson and Maurice Green moved their gums as fast as their legs, trading insults at a record pace. On the human-interest front, there was Marla Runyan, legally blind, qualifying for the team at 1,500 m, and Gabe Harmony Jennings, a happy eccentric from Forks of Salmon, Calif., announcing himself as a miler to be reckoned with. Finally there was Magnificent Marion Jones qualifying for what seemed to be every event.

There was lots of crime news in the big type too. Over in Utah, a 15-count indictment was handed up against Salt Lake City bid-committee principals Tom Welch and Dave Johnson in connection with the $1.2 million in graft that preceded--led to?--Salt Lake's selection by the International Olympic Committee as host of the 2002 Winter Games. The feds went ballistic on Welch and Johnson because they wouldn't cop a plea to bribing I.O.C. members. The two say they're innocent because schmoozing members at the time wasn't against I.O.C. policy--it was I.O.C. policy.

The indictment in Salt Lake overshadowed other news from a Denver courtroom that may ultimately prove far more troublesome for the Olympics. In filing a wrongful-termination lawsuit, Dr. Wade Exum, director of the U.S.O.C.'s drug-control unit for nine years before he stepped down under pressure last month, charged among other things that his bosses systematically covered up illicit drug use. "In recent years, absolutely no sanction has been imposed on roughly half of all the American athletes who have treated positive for prohibited substances," Exum alleged. He said that his tests had turned up "scores" of athletes using strength-building testosterone but that no one had been punished. The U.S.O.C. said Exum's charges were hogwash.

Assuming the U.S.O.C. is correct, we might ask, in the interest of Olympic glory, "What do you mean, our guys aren't taking drugs?" Chemistry long ago supplanted Wheaties as the breakfast of champions among elite athletes. Recently an Olympic discus thrower from Australia, Werner Reiterer, who admitted to spending about $12,000 a year on steroids and human-growth hormones during his career, said a majority of Australian athletes used performance enhancers and were encouraged to do so by Olympic officials. In Cuba, track officials refused to suspend world record-holding high jumper Javier Sotomayor after he tested positive for cocaine, and Jamaican track officials reacted similarly after sprinter Merlene Ottey tested positive for steroids.

That's shocking--I mean, that they were caught. For years I.O.C. czar Juan Antonio Samaranch has exhibited a pronounced ambivalence about drug use, and certainly his stance has allowed a number of golden boys and girls to keep their images shiny while doping. Careful athletes can easily beat the system that is in place to catch drug abusers. Unscrupulous sports federations can tailor testing schedules and tip off their constituents. Steroid creams can be flushed from the system in 24 to 48 hours. And for some of the most commonly used enhancers, such as erythropoietin (EPO), there are still no institutionalized tests. It is said that EPO, which increases stamina by boosting an athlete's red blood cell count, can improve an athlete's performance in a 20-min. run by 30 sec., but it is otherwise a nightmare of a drug. Overdose on EPO, and the blood becomes too thick for the heart to pump. EPO is believed to be the culprit in no fewer than 25 mysterious deaths among world-class cyclists since 1987.

But athletes will take EPO in Sydney because they can. And some of them will take too much of it. In 1995 Olympic-caliber U.S. athletes were asked in a poll, "Would you take a drug that made you a champion, knowing that it would kill you in five years?" More than half said yes. So even if we forget about fair play and credibility and Olympic ideals, we are left with this: the athletes must be protected from themselves and the pressure to win. How?

The I.O.C. needs to do two things immediately: develop a spine, and federalize. The only way to catch a cheat is with unannounced, out-of-competition testing, and that's where the focus should be in the next eight weeks. Historically the I.O.C. has delegated decision making to individual sports federations, but that policy is not working when it comes to drugs. A third of the 28 federations have yet to agree to out-of-competition tests in advance of the Sydney Games. The I.O.C. should call an emergency session and make a new rule applying to all sports, then send out its newly empowered testers.

As for that imperfect test for EPO--use it anyway. As gold medal marathoner Frank Shorter, now chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says, knowing a test is looming will knock cheaters off stride. Shorter says that if there is no EPO test at Sydney, then every endurance or strength performance is suspect. He's right. And when sport becomes suspect--when no one believes in it--it's no longer worth watching.