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As the broadcast of the men's Olympic skeleton competition ended in Cesana Pariol last Friday night, Zach Lund, the best American in that event, sat motionless before the TV in the living room of his parents' Holladay, Utah, home. His sadness was palpable. It would have been easier for him to watch, he said later, had his U.S. teammates raced well. But Eric Bernotas, Kevin Ellis and Chris Soule made mistakes Lund said he never makes and finished sixth, 17th and 25th, respectively. Earlier, when the actual event had ended-- Lund watched it on NBC's tape delay--2002 gold medalist Jim Shea Jr., who was at the venue in Italy, had called. "I know if you were here, you would have won the gold," Shea told him.
"That made me feel good," says Lund.
Feel-good moments have been few lately for Lund, 26, who was banished from the Games and suspended for a year on Feb. 10 for failing a drug test. Usually, an athlete who runs afoul of Olympic doping laws becomes a target for scorn, a cheater ferreted out by the most stringent drug code in sports. The program overseen by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) is often spoken of as a model for Major League Baseball and other organizations. But, as Lund's case shows, it can also be rigid and unfair, a system that dashes the dreams of the innocent and underscores the mess that performance-enhancing drugs have made throughout sports.
Last November, Lund, who at the time was near the top of the World Cup standings and establishing himself as the slider to beat in Turin, tested positive for finasteride, an ingredient in Propecia and Proscar, hair-restoration products he has been using--to restore his thinning hair--since 1999. During his first five years on the drugs, Lund noted on predrug test forms that he was using them, and he kept abreast of changes to WADA's list of banned substances. But he failed to check in 2005--the year finasteride was added as a suspected masking agent for steroids. Though he continued to indicate his use of Proscar, he didn't find out finasteride was banned until he was notified in mid-December that he had failed the seventh test he took last year.
At first it seemed sanity would prevail. The usually aggressive United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) reviewed his case and decided Lund was "not a doper" but was using finasteride "for a legitimate medical reason," says USADA general counsel Travis Tygart. The agency issued a warning, but no suspension, on Jan. 23, and Lund took his spot on the Olympic team. But on Feb. 2, WADA, which had never before challenged a USADA decision, asked the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) for a two-year ban for Lund. In a decision that was handed down in Turin as Lund was preparing for the opening ceremonies on Feb. 10, CAS concluded that Lund is "no cheat"--but because the tribunal is bound by mandatory sentencing rules for positive tests, it gave Lund a yearlong suspension. " Mr. Lund was not well-served by the anti-doping organizations," proclaimed the panel. "But, unfortunately, in 2005 he made a mistake."
Lund was crushed. He had to make what he calls "a walk of shame" past other athletes gathering for the opening ceremonies and surrender his credential to the IOC. He stands to lose much more. One sponsor has dropped him. ( Lund won't say who.) If another, The Home Depot, follows suit, he could lose his job as well as his funding. "I'll lose my house and may have to live in my parents' basement," says Lund.
Lund has been stripped of his annual stipend from the USOC and stands to lose access to USOC coaching and training facilities during the ban. This is not a concern of WADA's, which last Saturday underscored its get-tough policies by prompting a raid by Italian police of the rooms of several Austrian skiers suspected of harboring a former coach who was banned for suspicion of doping in 2002. "Other athletes all over the world had been sanctioned for a year or more for using [finasteride]," says WADA chairman Dick Pound. "The whole point of WADA is to get the same rules to apply to all athletes."
Establishing common-sense rules that distinguish between mistakes and offenses is still not a priority. "It doesn't seem fair that someone like Zach Lund gets a year and [ U.S. sprinter] Tim Montgomery, who engaged in a pattern of doping, gets only two," says Tygart. "Our resources should be devoted to those who are violating the rules intentionally."
Lund says he will work to change the rules so that individual doping cases can be viewed on their merits. "I'm going to have the last word in this," he says. "I never realized how bad the system really is and how few rights athletes have." Taking on WADA, he adds, "might be a harder challenge than getting into the Olympics. But I'm going to give it my all, just like I gave it my all to be an Olympian." Look for him in Vancouver in 2010, when he'll be a little older, wiser and, no doubt, balder.
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