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Caracas: A Scandal And A Warning
Craig Neff
September 05, 1983
The drug revelations that rocked the Pan Am Games put in motion a stringent new cleanup campaign
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September 05, 1983

Caracas: A Scandal And A Warning

The drug revelations that rocked the Pan Am Games put in motion a stringent new cleanup campaign

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As their flight carried them toward New York, the athletes moved about the aisles, visiting with each other, thinking—erroneously—that the worst was over. But they also talked conspiracy theory. One athlete said, "The word was that the medical staff from the Pan Am Games called the USOC in the United States and talked to a doctor regarding the testing procedure and what to do about any athlete who may have a problem. They were told by that doctor, 'Let them get caught.' "

Says Pyka, "The more we talked, the more it looked like we were set up." Atwood was surprised by the uncommon helpfulness of USOC officials. "It was very easy for me to leave," Atwood says. "[I was told] 'We have a ticket for you, we have flights for you.' " And then, says McKenzie, "The press was waiting for us. It was a little too much of a coincidence." Some of the athletes felt that because they were "third string" they were expendable, while the U.S.'s best—those who competed at the World Championships in Helsinki—were protected. Their guess was that if there was a plot, or a cover-up, Simon was directing it, motivated by a desire to wipe out drug use for all time. They were certain that Simon had known for months about the stringent testing planned for Caracas and thus bore the responsibility for failing to give them adequate warning.

They may have been giving Simon too much credit. At any rate, even as the athletes traded theories in the aircraft's coach section, Simon was sitting in first class on the very same plane. Though Simon had had reservations on the flight for months, his departure from Caracas just as the U.S. team was becoming embroiled in a major controversy seemed somehow inappropriate. "We were trying to figure out who he was and what he looked like," said Atwood. "Nobody had the nerve to go up and talk to him. In my opinion, he had a lot to do with the misinformation that was flying around."

Misinformation was bountiful. On Tuesday afternoon four more lifters were disqualified, including Michels, whose testosterone measurement exceeded the legal limit set for the games. Said Michels, who had won three gold medals in the 242-pound class, "We were told that steroids is the only thing they look for, but that other things"—he cited Visine and hemorrhoid creams—"could screw up the results." Which sounds like something other than a precise medical explanation.

"I told a member of the weightlifting staff all the details of the testing," says Bergman, refusing to name the staff member. "He said he would pass it on to the team members. I now believe his recommendations to them differed in some portions from mine."

The treatment of the U.S. weightlifting team in Caracas included another unorthodoxy. Unlike any other American athletes at the games, a group of 10 lifters were tested for steroids before the competition. Eight of the 10 tested positive. The eight weren't identified, but at least some of them competed anyway. All apparently avoided being tested following competition—thanks to the combination of luck and their failure to win. Interestingly enough, Michels had tested negative before the competition both for anabolic steroids and testosterone, according to his coaches.

No one has challenged the IOC's list of banned substances. Many U.S. athletes, after all, have long claimed that they need to use steroids just to keep up with the Russians and East Germans. But even if, as Simon says, the American athletes were warned about testing well in advance of Caracas, they could not have been given complete, accurate information about the nature of the testing. Through the very end of the Pan Am Games, much of what U.S. athletes, coaches and doctors persisted in believing about the testing machinery and procedures was simply wrong. As Donike said, and contrary to what most everyone in Caracas thought, the $200,000 worth of equipment used there—two mass spectrometers, four gas chromatographs and two computer printout machines, all American-made by Hewlett-Packard—was virtually identical to that used to test athletes in Helsinki and at last year's soccer World Cup in Madrid. Donike was also in charge of those two labs. "Absolutely nothing is being done differently here," he said.

But U.S. officials and athletes kept insisting that there had to be differences, particularly since at Helsinki no one had tested positive for any banned substances. "We'd been told that this was the same testing situation as at Helsinki," said Atwood. "But Dr. Bergman was saying that was not true." Bergman was under the impression that the sophisticated equipment could detect steroid use as far back in a subject's life as the testers wished, to birth if applicable, while Donike—who presumably knew what he was talking about—said the drugs could not be detected more than three months after they were discontinued. Even at week's end Bergman was saying, "The equipment here is calibrated differently from Helsinki. This is much more sensitive."

"There is no such calibration," responded Donike. "There is no dial you can turn, no 'sensitivity 1,' 'sensitivity 6,' 'sensitivity 10.' "

Yet if the machinery was no different, why were so many athletes caught?

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