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Throwing in the Towel
Steve Rushin
August 10, 1998
Beating a hasty retreat in the war on drugs
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August 10, 1998

Throwing In The Towel

Beating a hasty retreat in the war on drugs

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Among the many useful contributions sports have made to English is the phrase throwing in the towel, which is what a boxing trainer does to concede defeat in a fight and what athletic federations have been doing with alarming alacrity in the battle against drugs. They've cried uncle, waved the white flag, made like Eddie Futch at the Thrilla in Manila: They've thrown in the towel. How else to explain the curious ex cathedra pronouncement last week of International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who said that the list of drugs banned from the Olympics ought to be "drastically" reduced to exclude performance-enhancing drugs that don't have dangerous side effects? "Doping is everything that, first, is harmful to an athlete's health and, second, artificially augments his performance," Sammy theorized in the Spanish daily El Mundo. "If it's just the second case, for me that's not doping." While the IOC is furiously backpedaling from that statement, the impression remains that Samaranch is ready—in the words of English running great Steve Overt—to "throw in the towel" in the drug war.

It must be tempting to do so, as the IOC has been buried beneath a Samaranchalanche of drug woes. Last month U.S. shot-putter Randy Barnes and sprinter Dennis Mitchell were suspended by the International Amateur Athletics Federation for positive drug tests, and four Chinese swimmers received bans for drug violations. Meanwhile, Irish swimmer Michelle Smith could face a lifetime ban for allegedly tampering with a urine sample (her own).

In light of the drug fiasco at the Tour de France, cycling officials have not thrown in the towel—they're using the towel to tie off an arm to raise a vein. The doping by Tour riders was uncovered by French police, not the sport's officials, who should know that cycling is rife with drug peddling, as well as drugged pedaling.

Then there's the NFL's drug policy, which has fewer teeth than Leon Spinks, or so it seems from prominent drug-related casualties of recent years who weren't caught by the league itself. Bam Morris tested positive for having five pounds of marijuana in his car while in the presence of Texas police; Michael Irvin was found, also by Texas police, in a motel room full of cocaine.

At least the NFL has farmed out drug enforcement to the law; the NCAA often encourages schools to "police themselves," which is a bit like letting John McEnroe make his own line calls. It may be time that we at SCORECARD, self-righteous solvers of sport's problems, say it as well: We give. Uncle. Somebody, get us a towel.