At the home Depot Track and Field Invitational in Carson, Calif., last Saturday, competitors tried to change the subject. "Can't we get the focus back on the performances?" asked Maurice Greene after turning in the year's fastest 100-meter time. "Can't we please talk about the positive things going on in track and field?"� But reporters kept peppering Greene and nearly every other athlete with questions about the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative ( BALCO) drug scandal, which suddenly threatens to decimate this year's U.S. Olympic track and field team. After finishing second in the 100-meter hurdles, three-time Olympian Gail Devers admitted, "Every night I pray for my sport."� For months track and field athletes have been linked to BALCO, the Burlingame, Calif., lab at the center of a federal investigation into steroid distribution. But last week the hammer finally came down, when world 100-and 200-meter champion Kelli White admitted having taken performance-enhancing drugs allegedly supplied by BALCO and accepted a two-year ban imposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). White, who would have been favored to win three medals in Athens, agreed to cooperate with USADA in its effort to root out drug users and issued a statement in which she said, "I anticipate other athletes will be charged."
"What USADA did with Kelli White is tell her, 'Do you want to do it the easy way or the hard way? Eventually, we are going to get you,' " says Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee member and head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Lawyers involved in USADA's investigation told SI that agency officials have presented that same choice to other U.S. track and field athletes, and that some could be banned as early as this week.
Since USADA officials received documents within the last month from the federal investigation (provided by the Senate Commerce Committee), they have moved quickly to resolve the status of track and field athletes linked to BALCO. Their hope is to resolve the matter before the start of the Olympic trials, on July 9 in Sacramento.
A lawyer who has negotiated with USADA officials says that "they believe they are on a mission to clean up the sport"—a quest that has them investigating some of the biggest names in track, including five-time Olympic medalist Marion Jones and her boyfriend, 100-meter world-record holder Tim Montgomery. Among the dozen U.S. track athletes who have been linked to the BALCO probe, at least eight have—or would have had—a realistic chance of winning a medal in Athens, meaning that the USOC's goal of 100 medals may need major revising. "But the medals don't matter," says hurdler Mark Crear, a two-time Olympic medalist. "The goal is to send the best clean athletes."
USADA's aggressive approach has impressed and surprised competitors such as Crear, long ago numbed by the numerous appeals and the secretive nature of the arbitration process that follows positive tests. "The U.S. does more out-of-competition tests than any other country, but the perception has always been that the top U.S. athletes are protected," says shot putter John Godina. "You can't say that anymore."
Before 2001 White, 27, did not show the speed of a world—or even national-champion. She never won a state title while at James Logan High in Union City, Calif., and won no NCAA or SEC championships while attending Tennessee. White told USADA that she began taking a mix of steroids and EPO, a blood-boosting hormone most often used by endurance athletes, in December 2000. At the time she was coached by Remi Korchemny, who had worked with White since she was 12. She improved quickly, and she won the bronze in the 200 at the 2001 worlds in Edmonton. Two years later (with a pregnant Jones sitting the year out), White laid claim to the title of world's fastest woman, taking gold in the 100 and the 200 at the worlds in Paris.
After her victory in the 100 she tested positive for the stimulant modafinil, which was not listed on the WADA roster of prohibited substances but was nevertheless considered illicit by the IOC. White claimed the drug was prescribed by a doctor who worked with BALCO, to combat her narcolepsy. That explanation was compromised last September, when federal agents raided BALCO's offices and found modafinil. White and others were called to testify before a grand jury, which indicted Korchemny, BALCO founder Victor Conte and two others on conspiracy to distribute steroids and other banned drugs to Olympic athletes and professionals in baseball and football. (All four men have denied wrongdoing.)
When White testified late last year, her lawyer, Jerrold D. Colton, reviewed some of the evidence that federal investigators had on his client. Three weeks ago, when Colton and White met with USADA CEO Terry Madden and agency attorneys at a San Francisco hotel, the evidence had grown to include test results of samples Conte had sent to an independent lab. Conte allegedly promised his clients that the drugs they were taking would be undetectable, then had samples tested to back up his claim. Results from those tests were among the items seized by the government (and eventually given to USADA), and included at least one positive test from a sample provided by White. "After seeing the evidence, negotiations moved relatively quickly," Colton says. " USADA was dealing from a position of strength."
After a second meeting last week, White agreed to the two-year ban and the purging of all her victories and records since Dec. 15,2000. "I have not only cheated myself but also my family, friends and sport," White said in her statement. "I am sorry for the poor choices I have made." For all the media speculation prompted by White's agreeing to cooperate in the investigation, Colton says his client has little to offer on the subject of other runners' drug use. "This is not something athletes talk about or do in front of each other," he says.
News that White had been taking performance-enhancing drugs didn't come as a surprise to her fellow competitors. Whispers about her sudden improvement were common, and her excuse following the modafinil test became a running joke. But in a system where the standard response, as Pound says, has been to "deny, deny, deny," White's admission was refreshing.