A doping free Olympics? Not in London -- and maybe never
Years after Marion Jones, the specter of doping continues to haunt the Olympics
Victor Conte, of BALCO fame, estimated that 60 percent of athletes are doping
Only 6 athletes have been tossed for doping, but now every feat garners suspicion
LONDON -- The voice of doubt walked into Olympic Stadium on Thursday night. Dick Pound was there to award the medals for the women's long jump at Olympic Stadium, so he did his job as a representative of the International Olympic Committee: Hung the ribbons around the winners' muscular necks, applauded nicely, stood at respectful attention as the national anthem was played. He did the job well, in fact. Few in the place even noted he was there.
One minute after Pound left the field, at 8:47 p.m., the face of greatness sauntered out of a tunnel and into the light. The 80,000-strong crowd began to roar the moment Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt appeared, his gold cap on backward, his ascension to "legend," as he has so often put it, at hand. And so he rose: Bolt ran the 200 meters in 19.32 seconds to become the first man to ever repeat as Olympic champion in the 100 and 200 -- winning so easily that he could place an admonishing finger to his lips as he crossed the finish line, then drop to the track to fire off a flurry of push-ups.
Indeed, the whole wonderful Bolt show ensued: Bolt slapping hands with fans; Bolt grabbing a photographer's camera to take snaps of silver medalist Yohan Blake; Bolt being his magnetic, cartoonish, track-and-field-rescuing self. He came into these Games the biggest name in international sport, and he will leave as a global icon unless something goes terribly wrong. And it's the voice of doubt's job to worry that the new face of greatness will turn up dirty.
"He makes me skeptical," Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) said on Thursday afternoon. "It's short of suspicion: I would never go out and say I'm suspicious of his results, but they're so remarkable that even though he is 6-foot-whatever-he-is and runs like a cat rather than a tank in the old steroidal model, the improvement is so far off the curve that you have to wonder if it's entirely natural. I hope it is -- but you wonder. That's the price you pay for allowing this doping to get out of control."
Let's repeat it: As warmed as they are by British wins and hospitality, as popular as they've proven through record TV ratings, these London Games have shown that the Olympics are troubled still. Any radical spike here in time -- think swimmer Ye Shiwen of China in the 400 IM most prominently -- has been cause for speculation about doping. Any dominant performance, except those of Michael Phelps (and why is that, really?), has raised eyebrows if not questions. If it's not John Leonard, the American coach who told The Guardian that Ye's swim was "disturbing" and reminiscent of the legendarily drug-fueled East German swim program, it's Carl Lewis -- the same U.S. track great who questioned Jamaica's drug-testing program after Bolt struck gold in Beijing -- casting yet another gimlet eye on Bolt before these Games.
"It's just ... interesting," Lewis said. "I watch the results like everyone else and wait for time to tell."
And then there are all those sticky associations. After taking the 200 bronze medal on Wednesday night to become the first U.S. woman since, yes, Florence Griffith-Joyner to medal in the both the 100 and 200 (Marion Jones also did it in 2000, but later was stripped of her medals after admitting use of performance-enhancing drugs and lying about it to a grand jury investigating the BALCO scandal), U.S. sprinter Carmelita Jeter addressed her relationship with former agent Mark Block, who is two years into a 10-year suspension for his involvement with doping athletes. "Mark Block is a close friend of mine," Jeter said. "I love him dearly. I love his family."
Block's family includes wife and former Ukrainian sprinter Zhanna Pintusevich-Block, who was connected to BALCO founder Victor Conte and hit with a two-year doping suspension in 2011. Which brings us to Thursday morning, when Conte, a convicted felon, showed up in The Times of London to say he was working with U.S. sprinter Ryan Bailey, who finished fifth in the 100 final here, and bronze-medal-winning U.S. boxer Marlen Esparza; to denigrate the Olympic drug-testing program, which has conducted more than 6,000 tests here; and to estimate that 60 percent of the 10,000 athletes at these Games were using performance-enhancing drugs.
Conte also said that, as a reformed doping connection now devoted to cleaning up sports, he had been working with Pound on "a substance that I found was widely used on the dark side." Asked about that on Thursday, Pound was decidedly less dramatic.
"'Working with us is perhaps not quite right," said Pound, who retired as head of WADA in 2008 but remains on its board as the IOC's representative. "The new chairman and director general still think that Victor's on the dark side. I'm not persuaded that he is. A number of months ago, he found something that was being widely used in Europe and actually was able to get a sample of it for us to analyze. And he sent it to [a scientist at] our best lab, who analyzed it and said, 'I don't see anything in this particular sample that's performance-enhancing or on the [banned] list.' Which is not to say that it isn't being used as part of a cocktail somewhere else that has the effect.
"[Conte] has been part of that scene, so I always thought he would be a very good source. I haven't been able to persuade the current WADA management that they should take advantage of this; the guy was part of BALCO, so he's tainted forever. I find him knowledgeable and helpful. I would have no compunction of taking advantage of what he hears from the inside about what's going on now."
What's going on now -- blood-doping, steroids, EPO and human-growth hormone use -- and with whom is anyone's guess, which brought us to Thursday's historic one-two-three finish by Jamaica in the 200. Bolt's runner-up, Yohan Blake at 19.44, was banned for three months in 2009 by Jamaica's anti-doping agency for testing positive for a stimulant, and bronze medalist Warren Weir, 22, in running 19.84 in the final, has now sliced nearly six-tenths of a second off his personal best in the last year.
With all that -- and Lewis and Conte -- in the air, it's no wonder that a reporter stumbled during the post-race press conference, asking Bolt, "Can you assure us that you and the Jamaican drug team --excuse me, track team -- sprinters are drug-free?" Cue widened eyes from Bolt and Co., and guffaws across the packed room, but it was no joke: This was Jamaican sprinting's moment of triumph, yet the atmosphere is still so smoky that the question had to be asked.
"Without a doubt," said Bolt, who then gave a measured account of the team's work ethic before adding, "People doubt us really hard, but we are trying our best to show the world that we are running clean."
Earlier, though, when asked in the media mixed zone about Lewis and Conte, Bolt had said, "It's really annoying when people on the sideline talk stupid stuff. If you want attention, go do something. Because a lot of these guys who sit and talk, especially Lewis, nobody really remembers who he is so he's just looking for attention: That's my opinion. It's really annoying to know that people are trying to taint the sport after the sport has been going forward. For the athletes, it's hard. Because we work hard. We push ourselves to limits. I shouldn't have even responded to that."
Perhaps. But until now, Bolt's uniqueness has actually done much to dampen the usual speculation about a top sprinter and doping. Because to see him at his best is to witness a bio-mechanical miracle: No man this big (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) has ever run this fast, this easily, and we can accept -- we want to accept -- his record-breaking slash of the 100 world record in 2009 (from his own previous 9.69 to 9.58, the highest margin since the start of fully automatic time measurements), because he seems looser, more open, freer in attitude and gait than any cheat could be.
It helps, of course, that Bolt has never tested positive for banned substances, but any way you slice it, he was almost impossible to imagine before he came along. He's an off-the-charts outlier, a physical freak. When you saw him win the 100 in Beijing with a then-world record time of 9.69, it literally made no sense: Bolt did so despite slowing down to celebrate in the last 10 meters and oh, yes, one shoe was untied. What drug had ever been designed to do that?
But the skeptical voices of those like Pound and Conte underscore the reality that enough progress hasn't been made. Even with improvements in testing regimens and awareness, where we were with Ben Johnson in 1988, Marion Jones in 2000 and Kostas Kenteris in 2004 may be where we are still. Out of all those thousands of drug tests in London, only six athletes have been kicked out of these Games for a doping violation.
Pound said that Conte's estimate of 60 percent dirty is probably high, though, "frankly, as somebody on the inside he's probably more likely to know than we are." His guess? "It's north of 10 and short of 90 [percent]," Pound says, "but it's more than people expect.
"Yet we consistently are finding only between one and two percent of all the tests we do as positive. So something is wrong here: Either we're not testing the right people or there's stuff out there we don't know about or we can't get at the right people at the right time. That's discouraging."
No more so than being an Olympics devotee these days. What was F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum? A first-rate mind is one that can hold two opposing ideas yet still function? But how about a first-rate sporting event? Yes, we can suspend disbelief for 20 seconds at a time, be transported by the greatness at hand, but sooner or later that voice kicks in and Pound is right: You have to wonder. So how does such a construct continue to function? The Olympic Games can't go on forever like this. Can they?