Work in Sports
Specter of drugs weighs heavily on lifters
SYDNEY, Australia -- There is no doubt that drugs have become the dirty little secret of these Games. And not much of a secret anymore, either. One U.S. weightlifter, Tara Nott, was elevated from silver to gold in her 105-pound weight class because Bulgaria's Izabela Dragneva tested positive for a diuretic and was stripped of her Olympic championship. As soon as another American, 17-year-old Cheryl Haworth, earned the bronze medal in the superheavyweight class Friday afternoon, journalists began wondering if she would jump two places, having finished behind China's Ding Meiyuan and Poland's Agata Wrobel. Nobody came right out and asked Haworth if she thought Ding and Wrobel were on drugs. But the questions carried the hint of suspicion. Cheryl, do you, uh, expect that you will remain a bronze medalist?
Let it be said that neither Ding nor Wrobel is suspected of being a drug cheat. When the question came up tentatively in the medalists' press conference, all three said they were clean and had no reason to suspect any of their competitors. But that's what it has come to in weightlifting -- when you win a medal you have to deny you cheated to do so.
Unfortunately, journalists are duty-bound to question performances because there is the possibility that the sport is still the drug-filled embarrassment it was at the Seoul Games in 1988, when two Bulgarian gold medalists were kicked out because of drugs. (That was the same Olympics, remember, that a positive test took down Ben Johnson and enabled Carl Lewis to win the 100-meter gold.) Seven lifters (none from the U.S.) were suspended before these Games for drug use, and at least four (none from the U.S.) have been caught in Sydney. On Friday, the International Weightlifting Federation suspended the entire Bulgarian team from international competition for the next 12 months, pending further investigation.
The IWF is in a tough position. It seems to be taking the problem of drugs more seriously than any other federation, since it is the only Olympic-governing body to test all of its athletes, something it feels it needs to do to change its drug-culture image. Yet each positive test adds to the suspicion that the sport is indeed replete with cheaters. The diuretic that the IWF says was taken by three Bulgarian athletes -- Dragneva, Ivan Ivanov (who was stripped of a silver in the men's 123-pound competition) and Sevdalin Minchev (who had finished third in the men's 137-pound class) -- not only helps a lifter lose weight but also masks steroid use. That is why it's illegal.
Among the Olympic sports, only swimming deals with the drug question as much as weightlifting, and there is a glamour side to the pool sport that usually overrides the drug questions. Lifting is a gritty sport that, to the average American fan anyway, is contested mostly by drug-taking Eastern Europeans.
The emergence of Nott and Haworth -- both engaging personalities -- has gone a long way toward improving weightlifting's image and made the introduction of women's lifting one of the highlights of these Games. Pity that they had to share the headlines with drug cheats.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum is in Sydney covering the
Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read McCallum's
behind-the-scene reports from Down