His old friend Herbert Weinberg asked him to stop. Surely 5,000 meters, 3.1 miles, was enough for an old man under Sydney's morning sun, but on ran the retired Penn State sports science professor, doused by the shower of water that his pal kept flinging on his head with every lap. Pumping his arms as if something were chasing him, something eating into the big lead he'd built over all those exhilarating moments in packed Olympic stadiums and all those nights back home reading the many books by Olympic founder and dreamer Pierre de Coubertin—in French. The old man pushed through his pain, but on it came.
It was the same beast that devoured the press corps midway through the Sydney Games, the cynicism that had been stalking the last three Summer Olympics and finally ripped into these Games. The daily litany of drug busts was menacing enough, but then came the news leak that Marion Jones's husband, C.J. Hunter—the world-champion shot-putter who had pulled out of the Games allegedly because of knee surgery—had failed four recent drug tests, which hadn't been announced by USA Track & Field (USATF). Then came the accusations of the IOC and the IAAF, the international governing body of track and field, that USATF had covered up 15 other positive drug tests of American athletes beneath the lid of confidentiality and due process...and, well, it was all just too much for journalists half the old man's age to outrun. They'd grown sick of glorifying men and women who cheated and of federations that turned a blind eye. How many scribes were still trying to scrub off the septic slime of the 1996 Atlanta Games, at which another woman with a drug-stained husband-mentor, Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, had won gold and headlines only to be caught two years later masking her urine sample with whiskey? How many of the athletes they were lionizing would end up in 10 years with liver and kidney damage, fallow and shrunken uteruses, excruciating hip and back pain, and blind or clubfooted children—the legacy borne by many East German athletes who were fed steroids in the '70s?
Now Jones and her crusade for five golds smelled rank. Now every starting-block TV close-up of her and the other competitors became a chance to study—no, not the determination etched upon their faces but the amount of acne or the length of jawline that might indicate drug use. Now every day's newspaper in Sydney carried a full page, sometimes two, of stories on drug cheats, and every unexpected medal winner sent a black wave of suspicion and rumors rumbling through the press corps. "You can't trust anything anymore," said New York Times writer Jere Longman. "You're a dupe if you do. How do you write about people you don't trust? There's nowhere to turn for wonder."
Tatyana Grigorieva, the Russian turned Australian who came geysering out of a summer of injuries to a stunning silver in the pole vault? That Greek guy, Konstad�nos Ked�ris, who darted out of nowhere to take the men's 200? Dirty urine. Just wait for the announcement, whispered the pack.
Mihaela Melinte, the reigning world champion from Romania, was yanked off the field as the hammer throw was about to begin: A dope test in June had caught up with her. Izabela Dragneva of Bulgaria had been stripped of her weightlifting gold medal the week before. Both events were new ones for women in the Olympics—goodbye to the pipe dream that females in their ever-swelling numbers would reestablish grace and ethics in sports.
"I can pee now if you want me to," flared Gail Devers after coming up lame midway through the 100-meter hurdles semifinals, surprised to find journalists skeptical of a pullout that precluded her having to submit to a test. But so what if she passed the test? There is no effective detector yet for human growth hormone or artificial blood products, so innocence can no more be proved than guilt. So what if the urinalyses of Grigorieva and Kederis proved false? No one was going to be played for a Pollyanna again.
Even the old man. "I am programmed to cheer incredible Olympic feats," he told me. "The Olympics has its own ether, and I'm on that ether when I'm at the Games. I try not to watch them differently than in the past, but I'm incapable of controlling my senses and my mind. I have moments of doubt far more frequently. If the doubt continues this way, not only will I not attend the Olympics, I won't even turn on my TV. We're dealing with a deadly poison, so devastating it could cause the demise of the Olympic Games in the next 15 years. But we can save it, and we must."
With a lap and a half left, John Lucas's friend joined him. Anything to help the old man finish, and at last he did.
Funny, that's what I did on the Games' last night: I ran. Put on my sneakers and jogged down to the harbor, where one million people were garnering to celebrate the biggest and best bash that Australians, or any one else, had ever thrown. As the closing ceremonies at Olympic Park ended and a jet fighter flashed down the length of the harbor, dumping a trail of flame and kicking off the wildest fireworks display you ever saw, I found myself near a pack of 15-year-old Aussie girls, all of them smoking and drinking and staring up at the sky. "I wish the Olympics would never end," one of them said. "I wish it would just go on forever and ever and ever."
The old man's right. There's something the world's got hold of here, something so wondrous that even 15-year-old girls sucking on cigarettes don't want to let it go.