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Amateur athletes have long heard scare stories about tough drug tests, and except for rare instances they have always remained that—scare stories. Some athletes jokingly refer to them as "sink tests," because the carefully obtained urine samples invariably end up showing nothing and being poured down the sink. " 'Hey, it can't go six months back [to check for steroids]'—that's what I heard people saying," says sprinter Jackie Washington.
Whatever else is true, it's clear that the athletes had heard at least something about potentially strict testing by the time they arrived in Caracas. Then on Monday, Aug. 22, came blunt warnings about it. In meetings with American doctors and coaches less than 48 hours before track and field competition was to begin, the athletes were told that the urinalysis equipment set up in Caracas was the most sophisticated and sensitive ever used, that it could detect illegal substances put into their bodies years earlier, perhaps at any point in their lives. "These doctors came with facts," recalls Pyka. "In the past, everything was hearsay."
Never mind that the doctors' "facts" were mostly incorrect, and that by week's end the U.S. would be suffering one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of amateur sports in this country; at least the doctors made the athletes sit up and listen. Says King, "A lot of guys got scared."
The athletes' fears increased considerably when it was announced on Monday that seven weightlifters had tested positive for steroids. The lifters would not only be stripped of 12 newly won Pan Am medals, but in all likelihood lose their 1984 Olympic eligibility as well. One of them, Cuba's Daniel Nuñez, would also lose a world record. Suddenly rumors were swirling around Caracas. At least 40 athletes had already been caught, went one. Another had it that the testing equipment could indeed trace drug use back to childhood. Another: This was a premeditated crackdown, designed to rid all amateur sports of drug use before the '84 Olympics. Not surprisingly, when U.S. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Roy Bergman and head track Coach John Randolph arranged a Monday afternoon briefing session to explain the testing procedures, some 20 members of the men's team showed up.
"If you have any doubts about your own case," Randolph told them, "you can choose to go home." One of those with doubts was Pyka. Fearing he might test positive because he had taken an over-the-counter decongestant, Sudafed, for a sinus problem he'd developed two weeks earlier, Pyka had already decided to leave. Would a test find lingering traces of Sudafed in his system? If so, would he be disqualified—and thereby lose his Olympic eligibility? U.S. team doctors, not entirely certain what the testing equipment could or could not find, would not give him a satisfactory answer. Nor would the doctors advise javelin thrower Duncan Atwood, who was also concerned about Sudafed, or sprinter Brady Grain, who had been taking medication for strep throat.
"I began to talk to the coaches," says Atwood. "They weren't sure, so we tried to talk to the doctors. And the doctors weren't sure either." Says Pyka, "All we knew was that guys were going down like flies before us in the weightlifting." And that wasn't encouraging. At 9 o'clock Tuesday morning, just seven hours before the opening of the track competition, Pyka, Atwood and 10 teammates boarded Pan Am Flight 218 for New York.
Their departure was shocking enough. What was equally difficult to believe was the way the USOC handled it. The 12 athletes—Pyka, Atwood, Tully, Crain, Dave McKenzie, the U.S. record holder in the hammer throw, triple-jumper Mike Marlow, shotputter Jesse Stuart, discus throwers Paul Bishop and Greg McSeveney, hammer thrower John McArdle, long-jumper Randy Williams, and hurdler Mark Patrick—had put their trust in their coaches and the USOC staff. "I found out these tests were very strong and were picking up allergy medicine...and, of course, the steroids," says Atwood. "Then I heard that wasn't true, that they were only picking up steroids. Then I heard, no, the tests were picking up everything. So there was an information problem." Says Pyka, "It was like going into a dark cave, not knowing whether there is something in it or not."
The athletes assumed, naively, that they would be able to leave Caracas quietly, no questions asked, without media coverage. Not so. A van full of reporters and TV cameramen followed them as they left the athletes' village by bus at 6:30 a.m., and even more greeted them at Simon Bolivar Airport. "They filmed us and tried to ask questions like 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' " says Atwood. Such attention was nothing compared to what they would receive at home. The story was front-page news and on all the newscasts. All of this added to the athletes' feelings of betrayal.
As the 12 were leaving Venezuela, Dennis was addressing a press conference on behalf of the USOC. "Their individual decisions to withdraw should not be taken as an implication of guilt," she said. But the remainder of Dennis' statement—a condemnation of drug use and praise for the strict Pan Am testing—clearly implied such guilt and left the impression that the point of the exercise was to make an example of the Caracas 12. (Or 13, as the USOC incorrectly reckoned it, adding decathlete Gary Bastien—who had injured his leg but never did leave—to the list of departees.) Vigil told a Caracas newspaper later that day, "I think it's pretty obvious why they went home. We've realized for a long time that sensitive testing would turn away athletes. It's really too bad." But should it have been assumed that all 12 (or 13 or 11, since Tully, fed up with his harassment back in the States, returned and won Friday's pole vault competition with a jump of 17'10½") had been using steroids or other drugs? The Western press formed that impression. And here is how Moscow handled the news: Sovietsky Sport said the U.S. athletes withdrew because "they were frightened that their drug habits might be exposed." Tass reported that U.S. athletes now expect medical experts to work with the USOC to find "new and better methods of deception" to avoid detection of drugs. Tass made no mention of the disqualified Cubans.
None of the 12 Americans admitted to steroid use. Williams said he left Caracas because his wife had recently given birth. Patrick claimed he had a shoulder injury. Tully cited "personal business." "I don't doubt that some of the reasons were legitimate," says Ellis. "I don't doubt that some of them were on steroids."