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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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Last Saturday morning, dressed in cut-off blue jeans and a striped Pan American Games T shirt, William E. Simon, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, sat on the patio of his summer home on Long Island, the beach grass rippling in the wind behind him. Simon was talking tough about drugs. "It's about time the athletes understand we mean business," he said. "This is a problem that is going to destroy the international Olympic movement if we allow it to continue. It's an evil and we are going to stamp it out. The athletes are going to find out that the game is over."

The game may or may not be over, but after last week's events, it's no longer being ignored. Even as Simon spoke, the IX Pan Am Games were proceeding apace in Caracas amid the turmoil of one of the broadest, most heavily publicized drug scandals ever to hit amateur sports. Biochemistry had quickly supplanted baloncesto and beisbol as the focus of attention at the games, which had become a cacophony of misinformation and chaos. By the end of competition Sunday night, 11 weightlifters, a bicyclist, a fencer, a sprinter and a shotputter—15 athletes, all male, from the U.S., Cuba, Canada, Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Chile and the Dominican Republic—had been disqualified; urinalysis tests administered to them by the games' state-of-the-art doping-control lab had detected traces of one or more of the nearly 100 substances—ranging from eye drops to anabolic steroids—banned by the International Olympic Committee. Among those caught was America's top Olympic weightlifting prospect, Jeff Michels, who was found to have too high a level of testosterone. The possibility remained that more disqualifications would be announced this week.

Never before had drug tests trapped so many at a single event, prompting rumors that the equipment and procedures being used in Caracas were part of a new, more sophisticated technology. That was untrue. "The identical machinery and methods have been used for several years," said Dr. Manfred Donike, who, along with members of his staff from the Cologne, West Germany, College of Sports, was performing the tests. Yet confusion about the testing led to a variety of disturbing happenings.

On Tuesday morning 12 U.S. track and field athletes flew home. One of them, pole vaulter Mike Tully, would return three days later. Meanwhile, at the Stadio Olimpico, a suspiciously large number of track and field athletes either were scratched from their events or withdrew with sudden "injuries," presumably to avoid the risk of being tested. Several of those in the throwing events, facing automatic testing if they won, performed comically—or pathetically—below their capabilities. Since all winners were tested (as were a smattering of other athletes chosen at random), they obviously were hoping to stay out of the caldron by going into the tank.

The developments cast a shadow on all of track and field. The long-standing rumors of widespread drug use in the sport seemed to be confirmed all at once. Suddenly sounding distressingly plausible was the statement made by world-record-holding hurdler Edwin Moses that 50% or more of America's world-class track and field athletes were using drugs to try to improve their performances. "I didn't want to believe that," said U.S. hurdler James King last week. "After this, I have to."

But the Pan Am fiasco had other amateur athletes throughout the world wondering what to believe—and hoping that the questions raised in Caracas will be answered before Los Angeles, 1984: Will the widespread use of performance-improving drugs at last be eradicated through high-technology testing, as Simon claims will be the case? Had those 12 Americans who left Caracas been part of a setup by the USOC to be some kind of example to the rest of the world, as most of them believed? Or did the whole embarrassing affair result from mismanagement, misinformation and poor communications between U.S. team officials and the athletes in their charge?

"We protected their rights to the best of our ability," says Simon of those 12 Americans. As for Michels and other athletes who were disqualified, Simon says, "The fact is, they broke the law, and the fact is, they knew what the law was, and the fact is that they knew what the penalty was. And them's the rules, so don't complain if you get caught. No sympathy here, thank you." Simon was adamant on the point. "They have been warned time and time again," he said repeatedly last week. "It's about time they understood we mean business."

Simon's claim that athletes knew months in advance about the strictness of the Pan Am testing irked many of the Americans. "How could anyone know that we were warned unless he was there to see us get warned?" countered shotputter Ian Pyka, one of those who flew home on Tuesday. However, according to Pete Cava, spokesman for The Athletics Congress, the U.S. governing body for track and field, the top eight finishers in each event at the national championships in June received a three-page memo listing the five categories of banned substances and noting that testing would be done at all major summer meets, including the Pan Am Games, with a special warning against usage of "eye drops, nose drops or cold remedies." Of course, not all the Pan Am team members were among the top eight at the TAC nationals. Pyka, for instance, finished ninth.

Also, Larry Ellis, the 1984 Olympic men's coach, sent a letter to major track coaches and clubs warning about testing at summer meets. "The testing," Ellis wrote, "is of such a sophisticated nature that...drug use six months prior to the day of the test can be verified."

However, many U.S. athletes insist they were not told of the strictness of the testing until they had gathered at a pre-Pan Am Games camp in Hollywood, Fla. in the first weeks of August. At that time, few in the U.S. delegation had even seen the Caracas lab, and there was talk that because of organizational problems in Venezuela, there might not be any testing at all. The main source of information for the athletes was Dr. Evie Dennis, U.S. chief of mission for the games, who had heard about the lab while doing advance work in Caracas. "I knew then they weren't fooling around," she says. "I called and told [U.S. team manager] Joe [Vigil], 'I don't know if anyone of yours is taking drugs. I don't have any reason to think so, but if anyone is or has, tell him for God's sake go home.' "

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