Doping issues taking focus away from Athens Games

Friday, July 23rd 2004, 7:38 pm
By: News On 6

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) _ Rulon Gardner returns to the Olympics after nearly freezing to death on a Wyoming mountain. Michael Phelps goes after Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals. Another Dream Team hopes to re-establish the United States as the world's best in basketball.

The Athens Games next month will be filled with intriguing stories. But will anyone notice? With the brouhaha over drugs and cheating athletes, much of the competition itself seems to have become secondary.

``I really think it has overshadowed much of the attention that possibly could have gone to other sports and other athletes in the run-up period of the games,'' U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Jim Scherr said. ``You know the old adage that any publicity is good publicity? Probably not in this case.''

It's happened before.

In the buildup to the 1994 Lillehammer Games, no one wanted to talk about speedskater Dan Jansen's bid to finally win gold or skier Alberto Tomba's chase of history. The focus was on the drama involving Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

The doping scandal is far more reaching than a whack on the knee, of course.

Four U.S. track athletes will not compete in Athens after testing positive for the designer steroid THG, and sprinter Kelli White accepted a suspension even without a positive test for the drug.

Four others have been charged with using THG as part of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative distribution case. Marion Jones, the darling of the Sydney Games, is being investigated by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

And while world record holder Tim Montgomery failed to qualify in the 100 meters _ eliminating a headache for U.S. officials who accused him of using drugs _ Torri Edwards and Calvin Harrison still face possible suspensions for using banned stimulants.

The mess has further tainted the image of all U.S. athletes, who will compete under a cloud of suspicion no matter how clean they are.

``I guess that's human nature with 'The Jerry Springer Show' and things like that,'' said Steven Lopez, a taekwondo gold medalist in 2000. ``People are drawn to negativity and the negative part of everything.''

Some people within the Olympic movement believe the problem could have been headed off years ago, Scherr said.

``I think there is a prevailing feeling in the Olympic family that more could have been done to prevent this,'' he said, ``had either the coaches or the officials within USA Track & Field proceeded more quickly to adopt an attitude and a stance and a program that was more reflective of a zero-tolerance program for anti-doping.''

The United States has been fighting the image of being a country of drug users for years. The recent rash of positive tests and suspensions have only furthered that perception. The nature of THG only makes it worse, since designers, coaches and athletes went to great lengths to skirt the drug-testing system.

The scandal could force athletes in other sports to have to defend themselves against unfounded accusations in Athens, and it certainly has fostered resentment toward the cheaters.

``I think it's kind of pathetic,'' Lopez said. ``I don't know how athletes could live with themselves when they go out there and win a gold medal or just go out there and perform when they know inside that they are taking some kind of performance drug that enhances their ability. It's pretty sad that they would stoop to that level.''

The effects on the USOC aren't as pointed but could last longer.

The USOC's brand is built on Olympic ideals of sportsmanship, fairness and competition. Athletes caught cheating will certainly hurt that image, perhaps making it tougher for USOC leaders to try to build relationships and secure lucrative sponsorship deals.

Still, the suspensions show the United States is serious about cracking down on drug cheats. For a country accused of being lax on drug testing, that is a big step.

``We're glad with the change of attitude,'' IOC president Jacques Rogge said. ``Before they were not 100 percent totally effective in the fight against doping. Now with the creation of USADA, they are far more effective.''

Too bad it's not going to help the athletes headed to Athens.

With the drug scandal in track and field getting most of the focus, it's going to be hard for athletes in other sports to make names for themselves. It's going to be particularly difficult for athletes in smaller sports like archery and fencing, who don't get much attention to begin with.

``I just hope the media is more concerned and is featuring athletes ... going out there and doing what the Olympics are all about instead of doping and what drugs people are taking,'' Lopez said.