Drugs taint Sydney image

Tuesday, September 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SYDNEY, Australia – Despite shining moments of athletic achievement, a glorious setting and the joy of the people who came to watch, the lasting legacy of the Sydney Olympic Games could forever be tainted by drugs.

Andreea Raducan, the 16-year-old Romanian gymnast who won favorable comparisons with Nadia Comaneci and the Olympic gold medal for best all-around performance, lost that medal Tuesday after testing positive for pseudoephedrine, a stimulant found in many cold medicines. She is the first gymnast to lose a gold medal for failing a drug test.

A day earlier, International Olympic Committee officials revealed that American shot putter C.J. Hunter, the husband of gold-medal-winning sprinter Marion Jones, had tested positive for nandrolone, a steroid, at an international competition during the summer. On Tuesday, the officials announced that Hunter had failed three other tests in June and July for the same banned substance.

Though Hunter wasn't competing in Sydney – he withdrew shortly before the games opened, citing a slow recovery from knee surgery – the allegations against him became one of the Olympics' biggest stories.

Earlier in the Sydney games, three Bulgarian weightlifters lost medals, including Izsabela Dragneva's gold in the 105-pound class, for failing post-competition drug tests.

A hammer thrower from Belarus and a rower from Latvia were also sent home for drug violations, and two Romanian weightlifters were suspended before the Games began after failing out-of-competition drug tests.

The Olympics that Juan Antonio Samaranch proclaimed "the drug-free Games" have been anything but.

The IOC has spent millions of dollars in recent years to improve drug testing. But the rash of problems has done little more than trigger accusations among the various sporting organizations, which are divided by both test standards and philosophy.

When news of Hunter's drug tests broke, members of the International Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletic Federation accused USA Track and Field of hiding positive drug tests and using its influence to keep its athletes from being suspended.

Arne Ljungqvist, the IAAF's top anti-doping officer, said U.S. track officials have withheld information on as many as a dozen positive drug tests in the last two years.

And IOC member and speed skating great Johann Olav Koss of Norway said that if Marion Jones fails to win five gold medals in Sydney because of the allegations against Hunter, the blame rests with USA Track and Field.

"I should think this is affecting her a lot," Koss said, "and I think that's unfair to her. But I think the U.S. Track and Field should have released this a long time before [the allegations leaked out] so this wouldn't happen now just during the games."

The criticisms stung Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track and Field.

"Track and field has nothing to apologize for or be defensive about, because we are the world leader [in drug testing]," he said.

And he denied the United States has tried to cover up drug cases.

"We process all cases exactly the same way," he said. "No one on this Olympic team is in any kind of [legal] process. No one on this Olympic team has tested positive in any way."

But U.S. Track and Field does handle drug cases differently than the IAAF, the world governing body for track and field. Athletes under IAAF authority are suspended when they fail a drug test; U.S. Track and Field provides athletes with anonymity and an appeal process that can take months.

The bickering is really just a wrinkle in sports' long struggle with performance-enhancing drugs. Despite new tests that allow officials to better detect banned substances, the widely held belief is that athletes and their handlers are one step ahead of the drug police.

So the eyes of the suspicious sporting world were focused on Sydney long before the athletes arrived.

Unexpected performances in recent Olympics put more and more attention on the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs. That attention only increased when some of the world's top athletes, including Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayer, the current world record holder, and Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey failed drug tests in 1999.

Ottey was later exonerated, and Sotomayer's two-year suspension eventually was cut in half. But those rulings by the IAAF did little to ease public concerns.

Mistrust over great performances really began when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the 100 meters in Seoul in 1988.

And though Florence Griffith-Joyner never failed a test, the American sprinter's spectacular performance in the U.S. Olympic trials and the 1988 Olympic games led to rumblings of drug use. Her decision to retire in her prime, and her sudden death at age 38 in 1998, further fueled the controversy.

But it was unheralded Irish swimmer Michelle Smith's stunning triple gold medal performance in Atlanta that really sparked the public debate over performance drugs. She didn't fail a single test in Atlanta. But two years later, after a surprise drug test at her home, Smith was banned from swimming for four years for spiking her urine sample with whiskey.

IOC and Australian Olympic officials touted two new tests intended to uncover use of the synthetic hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, a drug much favored by endurance athletes and the root of a scandal in the Tour de France bicycle race in 1998.

But so far there is no test to detect human growth hormone or insulin growth factor, two other banned substances. And some athletes have turned to using artificial hemoglobin, which offers some of the benefits of EPO, including boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.

Stopping the use of banned substances has proven impossible so far. And there is widespread suspicion that top leaders of the IOC don't consider it their top priority.

In a 1998 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, IOC President Samaranch seemed to open the door to future use of performance-improving drugs.

"Doping is any product which, first, damages the health of the sportsman and, second, artificially increases his performance," Samaranch said. "If it produces only this second condition, for me, that's not doping. If it produces the first, it is."

Samaranch went on to say the current list of banned substances "must be drastically reduced."

"Anything that doesn't act against the athlete's health, for me that's not doping," he said.

The response, not surprisingly, was outrage.

Steve Ovett, the former Olympic 800-meter champion from Great Britain, said Samaranch "is throwing in the towel."

"It scares me to think that Samaranch might just be throwing up his hands, saying, 'It's all getting too hard,' " said former world champion marathon runner Robert De Castilla of Australia.

The IOC quickly countered that Samaranch wasn't quoted properly and that he believed every performance-enhancing drug damaged the athlete's health.

The IOC and other agencies have created a World Anti-Doping Agency headed by Dick Pound, an IOC vice president, a heartening development to many who have questioned the athletic federations' interests in stopping the use of banned drugs.

"We've come a long way," said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director and a critic of past IOC efforts, "but we still have a long way to go."

Charles Yesalis, a professor at Penn State University and author of a book on performance-enhancing drugs, wasn't optimistic.

"These games are going to be as drug-laden as the rest," he said.

That's a tragedy for Sydney, for the Olympics and for the athletes here.

"Everywhere you look, it's drugs this and drugs that," said American runner Kim Batten, winner of the silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles. "That angers a lot of athletes. You wonder who you're competing against."

Staff Writer Ken Stephens contributed to this report.