ABOUT THE DEATHS OF THOSE SOVIET ATHLETES
In case further proof is needed that you shouldn't believe everything you read in the newspapers, consider the flurry of recent stories about the supposedly early deaths of Soviet athletes. The stories were prompted by a yarn in the British newsletter Foreign Report claiming that a large number of "young" Soviet athletes had died over the last quarter century "in circumstances which suggest the unauthorised and excessive use of stimulants, anabolic steroids or other drugs." Foreign Report, which is owned by the magazine The Economist, cited the deaths of 59 Soviet athletes and said that these indicated a "mortality rate" about 2.5 times higher than that of U.S. athletes. Seizing upon Foreign Report's figures as supporting his contention that drug abuse among Soviet sportsmen was widespread, Bob Goldman, a research fellow at the Chicago Osteopathic Medical Center, told the Associated Press, "It's about time this is coming out.... We knew it had been going on all along."
Exactly what had been going on, however, is by no means clear. The Foreign Report story that evoked Goldman's approval defined the 59 deceased Soviets only as "athletes" and conceded that the list included accidental deaths and those occurring at ages—hardly "young"—of up to 61. Although Foreign Report declined to say where it got its list, Osyp Zinkewych, a spokesman for the U.S.-based anti-Soviet Ukrainian human-rights organization called Smoloskyp, told SI that his group was the source. Smoloskyp had released names of 59 deceased Soviet athletes at a press conference in Los Angeles during the Summer Olympics, two weeks before the Foreign Report story appeared. As far as can be determined, Smoloskyp's list is the same as Foreign Report's.
Zinkewych was more forthcoming than Foreign Report about the names on the list. The 59 athletes, he said, competed in Summer and Winter Olympics from 1952 through 1976. Forty-six of them won medals. Foreign Report's assertion that Soviet athletes had a mortality rate 2.5 times higher than that of U.S. athletes was apparently based on research by Smoloskyp indicating that 4.45% (46 of 1,033) of all Soviet medalists from 1952 through 1976 had died vs. 1.79% (14 of 784) of U.S. medalists. But the figures don't allow for the fact that the average life expectancy is shorter in the U.S.S.R. than in the U.S. (69 vs. 74) and that during most of the period in question, Soviet Olympians tended to be older—by as much as four years, by one estimate—than their American counterparts. If these two factors are taken into account, the mortality-rate gap would narrow considerably. Furthermore, Smoloskyp provided no figures on how many non-medal-winning U.S. Olympians died at 61 or younger during the period; the number would certainly exceed the 13 non-medalist Soviets cited by Smoloskyp. Whatever the numbers, Smoloskyp offered no evidence that even one of the 59 Soviet deaths was drug related. Pressed on this point, Zinkewych admitted, "Nobody knows why they died."
None of this is to deny that Soviet athletes have taken illicit drugs in efforts to improve their performances. Drug use is known to be common among athletes in both the East and West. However, all indications are that in the Soviet Union, as in the U.S., drugs aren't systematically administered by the sports hierarchy but, rather, are taken on an individual basis. Thus, while Soviet middle-distance star Tatyana Kazankina refused to submit to a doping test after a race in Paris last month, an action that could result in her suspension from international competition, other Soviet athletes who competed this year in Western Europe took and passed similar tests.
In the absence of hard evidence, the allegations against the Soviets appear to be equal parts badmouthing and propaganda. The badmouthing is of a kind that can be directed at athletes of any nation. ABC-TV sportscaster Donna de Varona, who won two gold medals in swimming at the 1964 Olympics, recalls that rival coaches, both American and foreign, grumbled that she and other U.S. winners at those Games couldn't possibly have swum so fast unless they were taking amphetamines. As a result of these unfounded charges—today young kids routinely swim faster than world-beaters did in '64—de Varona says she's "very suspicious" of loose talk about drug usage. "People will leap to any reason for success other than hard work and training techniques," she says. "Soviet athletes also have individual coaches and diverse situations. It's not one system, like we're led to believe."
Michael Yessis, a phys ed professor at Cal State-Fullerton and editor of Soviet Sports Review, which publishes articles on training techniques translated from the Russian, agrees. "I'm not saying [the Soviets] never use drugs," he says. "But nobody's picked up on how they train. That's how they've had their success." Yessis expresses annoyance that at its L.A. press conference, Smoloskyp "couldn't back up anything [it] said." The same complaint, of course, can be leveled against Foreign Report, which in its intimations of across-the-board drug use by Soviet athletes has tarnished what, in most cases, appear to be real and praiseworthy athletic achievements.
Tube Tale No. 1: International Olympic Committee officials said last week that they're trying to arrange the scheduling of "premium" finals at the 1988 Games in Seoul no later than 9 a.m. local time. The gold-medals-for-breakfast timetable is deemed essential for wringing top dollar out of U.S. TV networks in the bidding for rights to cover the Games. Seoul is 13 hours ahead of New York City, which means that events starting at 9 a.m. would air at 5 p.m. on the West Coast and 8 p.m. on the East Coast. The scheduling of morning finals might necessitate some metabolic adjustments for the athletes, who are accustomed to competing in finals in the afternoon or evening. It would also raise the question of what will happen in those sports—e.g., track and field and swimming—that often have prelims the same day as finals. Anybody for 100-meter breaststroke heats at 1:30 a.m.?
Tube Tale No. 2: Before stepping down as baseball commissioner on Sept. 30, Bowie Kuhn decreed that if the Cubs reach the World Series, the fifth game, if needed, will begin in Chicago at 2:45 p.m. That late starting time—regular-season Cubs games normally begin at 1:20 p.m.—would be an accommodation to NBC, which could then get its NFL coverage out of the way before switching to the Series. Trouble is, Wrigley Field has no lights, and sunset on Oct. 14 is at 6:11 p.m. World Series games tend to run two and a half to three hours or even longer, with the result that the fifth game will likely either be called because of darkness or played to a conclusion in deepening shadow that will make it hard—possibly dangerously so—for batters and other players to see the ball. At a testimonial dinner for the departing commissioner last week in Manhattan, The New York Times's Joe Durso noted that Kuhn, having earned his place in history as the man who brought night baseball to the World Series, will now also be remembered as the man who brought it to a ball park without lights.