Late last Thursday night Dennis Mitchell found the article he had been looking for on the Internet, the story on Mary Slaney's suspicious drug test at last June's U.S. Olympic track and field trials. A three-time Olympian and last year the top-ranked American at 100 meters, Mitchell, who is also chairman of the USA Track & Field Athletes Advisory committee, carefully absorbed every syllable of the story and, without judging Slaney, instantly distilled its effect. "Another hit for our sport, another piece chopped out of us," Mitchell said later that same night. "The only thing I can imagine that would be worse is if something happened with Michael Johnson."
Slaney, 38, by far the most famous and successful U.S. women's middle-distance runner ever, jump-started a career assumed to be over when she finished second in the 5,000 meters at the trials to qualify for her fourth Olympic team. However, a drug test at the trials showed that Slaney had an abnormally high ratio of testosterone (a male sex hormone that also stimulates bone and muscle development) to epitestosterone (a hormone with no known physiological benefit), a figure that alerts officials to the possible use of performance-enhancing drugs. The acceptable ratio is 6 to 1; a source familiar with Slaney's test told SI that her level was 10 to 1. Slaney's lawyers do not dispute that her level was above 6 to 1, but they do dispute that she was using any banned substances.
To understand the perilous state of track and field in the U.S., consider that there are two possible truths in the Slaney case, and both are disastrous for the sport.
Let's say Slaney is clean. No drugs. The test in question merely revealed a normal fluctuation in a woman's testosterone-epitestosterone ratio (T-E), as her lawyers have argued. Then what the keepers of the sport in America have done by failing to settle the case swiftly and in anonymity is to lynch a U.S. superstar. "It's like being accused of child molesting," says Alberto Salazar, one of Slaney's coaches. "Just [the story's being leaked to the media] is enough, even when it's not true." And USA Track & Field has laid the testing system bare, exposing it as hopelessly incompetent: Not only doesn't it catch cheaters, but it also taints the innocent.
Let's say Slaney is dirty. Let's say she was using anabolic steroids or some other drug to help a small, oft-injured body endure the rigors of training at an advanced athletic age. The path of suspicion is clear, if one wishes to follow it. Slaney was too old and, after 19 operations, too surgically scarred to suddenly run faster than she had in four years. Salazar, himself a distance-running legend, admits he tried pharmacological remedies late in his own career, experimenting with the corticosteroid prednisone in an attempt to revive his deficient adrenal system and winning a 54-mile race in South Africa while taking the antidepressant Prozac. If Slaney—the light-striding former Mary Decker who burst into prominence, pigtailed and flying, at age 14—is dirty, then who can be clean? It's as if the golf world suddenly discovered that Tiger Woods isn't a human being but a cyborg.
We may never know the truth. Slaney's allies and lawyers insist that a low epitestosterone level—which they say can be brought on by a variety of factors ranging from consumption of liquids to menstruation—skewed her ratio. They further argue that Slaney's results fell within the acceptable range on three subsequent tests. One drug-testing expert agrees with the Slaney camp's theory on the fluctuation of T-E ratios and says the results of her later tests make her defense plausible. "My gut feeling is," he says, "that those three tests should tell you the trials test was an aberration." But another testing expert says, "Those clean tests work against her argument because they establish [her ratio in those three tests] as her natural ratio. So what happened on the day of the trials?"
There's more. Slaney's lawyers dispute the merits of any T-E testing, on the grounds that women's ratios can be unpredictable. Indeed the drug test of another woman, 400-meter hurdler Sandra Farmer-Patrick, also showed a high testosterone level at the trials; last weekend the Sunday Times of London reported that USA Track & Field has decided to ban Farmer-Patrick for four years. The complexity of the issue has left the cases in a baffling state of limbo. "It throws into question the entire process," says U.S. distance runner Lynn Jennings, a three-time Olympian. USA Track & Field has declined comment on unresolved drug cases.
Track and field, with its measure of speed, strength and stamina, should be the purest of all sports. Yet it has become submerged in the process of finding out who is clean, who is dirty and, even more, how to find out how to find out.