The Summer Olympics: Are Drugs Winning the games?

There will be new tests to catch the cheaters in Sydney. Will the Games be clean? Not a chance

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It is, again, impossible to say how widespread the cheating will be in Sydney. When the question is asked of experts, answers range from Pollyannaish to doomful. U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, who will defend his Olympic title at 400 meters, insists he has "never taken the line thinking I was in anything but a clean race." To which Frank Shorter answers, "Bullshit." Craig Masback says he hopes his young daughter runs track because, with so much testing, she won't do drugs. But Shorter says he first heard about human growth hormone in a Boulder, Colo., locker room in 1984, when he eavesdropped on a conversation between two 14-year-olds discussing a buy. Where's the truth?

One attitude common to all is resentment. Johnson is resentful that, with so few positive tests among so many athletes, Olympic sport is being tarred, with consequences that will extend to TV ratings and sponsorships. Masback is resentful that in the summer of 1998 shot putter Randy Barnes made headlines for a positive steroid test even as baseball hero Mark McGwire made headlines for hitting home runs while taking a steroid, androstenedione, that Major League Baseball, in its don't-ask-don't-tell cynicism, sanctions.

Penn State's Yesalis is resentful that the I.O.C. makes a big show of its "war on drugs" while keeping in place a system that is not unlike baseball's in assuring that the stars--the moneymakers--continue to appear clean. Shorter is resentful that, even when this system stumbles upon a cheater, hypocrisy rules at the end of the day. He says "it absolutely stinks" that Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor will compete in Sydney. The world-record holder tested positive for cocaine at last summer's Pan Am Games and was banned for two years by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. But in early August the federation, citing "exceptional circumstances" and a career with no previous violations, commuted the ban. Even federation senior vice president Arne Ljungqvist was appalled--"He should be suspended"--and threatened to resign. Cuban track officials, while applauding the reinstatement, were distressed that it wasn't accompanied by an apology. What's the Spanish for chutzpah?

And what's the reason for hope, in a world where indefensible decisions are commonplace? "The reason is, things have to change, or we're going under," says Shorter. "The Olympics will be a freak show."

Two recently created agencies, one of which is his own, may be able to effect change, Shorter says. The other is the World Anti-Doping Agency, and it is currently conducting 2,500 pre-Sydney, out-of-competition tests, the only kind with any reasonable chance of catching a cheat. "I truly hope our agencies act independently of the I.O.C., with its conflict of interest in keeping stars eligible," says Shorter. "I want to get reciprocity, so any country that's not tested up to our standards can't compete here, and any sport that's not tested up to a uniform standard is out of the Olympics. Being in the Olympics is a privilege, not a right. I want to get the athletes involved. The Australians are voting on maybe giving voluntary blood tests in Sydney to prove they're clean. That's a sign of willingness. I want that to spread."

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