Sports Illustrated Daily, July 22,
1996

Sports Illustrated Daily Feature Story

Damning of Champions

The shadow of drugs always looms over the games

by Tim Layden

The clouds have rolled in swiftly, as they do nowadays at these gatherings. The scene unfolds with a predictable rhythm: March the athletes into the stadium, light the cauldron and start dropping steroid innuendo on gold medalists. Three days into the Games, and already the machinery of mistrust and cynicism is running at full throttle.

Le

Le has never tested positive, but her victory is still questioned.

photograph by
Richard Mackson


A Chinese woman, Le Jingyi, won a gold medal in swimming on Saturday night, and you could hear the whispers. Chinese woman ... gold medal ... steroids. Her victory was instantly cheapened. And there are still five more days of swimming competition and eight more of weightlifting, a sport in which two Iranians and a Russian were discovered to have tested positive in the days leading up to these Olympics. Wait until track and field begins on Friday. The damning of champions has only begun.

Drugs, not just by their actual use but also by the possibility of their use, have become a sad, central Olympic theme. Gold medals lead to national anthems, flag raisings and often assumptions of dirty blood. Bud Greenspan could do an entire documentary on anabolic steroids and the Olympics. It could begin with Ben Johnson, the disqualified 1988 100-meter gold medalist, the most famous Olympic athlete ever foolish enough to get caught. It could include Gwen Torrence, whose 1992 accusations that two of the women's 100-meter medalists at the Barcelona Games used drugs badly smudged her reputation. And it could include all of the Eastern Europeans, Chinese and, yes, Americans who have won medals amid the same type of veiled finger-pointing that began here on Saturday.

Even as these Games play out, Australia's national 200-meter champion, Dean Capobianco, is in the Olympic Village awaiting word on whether he'll be allowed to compete after allegedly testing positive for steroids in May. In 1995 the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body for track and field, handed down 33 four-year steroid suspensions and two lifetime bans. Most of the athletes who were banned are unknown to the general public. But does that mean that elite athletes generally don't use performance-enhancing drugs or that they have the financial and medical resources to use them without getting caught?

There is a perception that drug testing has become more effective. In some twisted way, the seven Chinese swimmers who, unlike Le, failed to reach the finals over the weekend lend credence to this thinking. It can be theorized that they performed badly because they weren't using steroids out of fear of the drug-testing system here, which is advertised as the most vigilant in history. And this continues a trend.

World records set between 1986 and 1990 still stand in six track and field weight events, which are those most affected by steroid use. Clean athletes consider most of those records unassailable. It is here that the U.S. finds its most prominent place in the steroid annals: Mike Stulce and Jim Doehring went 12 in the shot put at the Barcelona Olympics, each with a previous steroid suspension. Shot put world-record holder Randy Barnes, winner of this year's U.S. Olympic Trials, was suspended for anabolic steroids in 1990.

And there remains a sense that the bad guys will always run slightly ahead of the posse, that the drug of choice will simply change and then move from the shot put to the 200-meter freestyle, finding the soft spots in sport and bureaucracy the way a virus finds victims. It might be best to simply do away with drug testing, letting the athletes take whatever strength-building, liver-destroying agents they choose. You would think that a generation of disease would teach the lesson, eliminating the dirt by natural selection. But of course, that wouldn't work either: Though most athletes know the risk, if they were considering taking a drug that would make them faster or stronger but might also cause their head to fall off, they would probably take it just the same. There is the lure of fame and money for them, in desperately short careers. Money, too, for the nations that systematically encourage drug use.

The problem is irresoluble, unless the science of detection someday fully catches up to the science of deception. Until then, because we are a suspicious people and because we know that many of us will do whatever is required to succeed, the Olympic Games will always be just slightly tainted.

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