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Positively confounded

The spate of positive drug tests leaves more questions than answers.

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000


SYDNEY, Australia -- Do you believe what you see? Or what you suspect?

You watch the Olympics. No one else seems to be watching, but you are. Because you still love the mesh of nations, of cultures, of anthems. Besides, you like seeing world records tumble.

But do you still believe this is about competition? Or is it about chemicals?

More and more that is the question of the Games. How much of what you are seeing is the product of the practice field, and how much is a product of the laboratory? Is this all about dope, and are we all dopes if we think it is not?

The questions are raging again. Thank C.J. Hunter for that. According to Monday's Daily Telegraph and confirmed by International Olympic Committee vice president Dick Pound, the American shot putter tested positive for steroids in July at the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway. According to the Telegraph, it was the positive test -- not a knee injury, as Hunter insisted -- that caused Hunter to withdraw from the Olympic shot put competition. (American officials had no comment, perhaps because they had no comment earlier when Arne Ljunqvist accused them of covering up positive tests and they did not wish to contradict themselves.)

Just like that, the doubts began again. If Hunter is guilty, how about the other field athletes? How about Regina Jacobs and Marie-Jose Perec, who both suddenly withdrew from track events shortly before the Games? For that matter, how about Marion Jones, Hunter's wife? Are we to believe she reached into the family medicine cabinet and pushed aside Hunter's nandrolone so she could get an Advil for her headache?

This is the rule. The guilty implicate the innocent, if any innocents truly remain. They cast doubts on every race, on every record, on every champion. It is increasingly difficult to figure out. Who is guilty? And who is getting away with it?

Let's see. Shooters take drugs to slow their heartbeats. Gymnasts take drugs to stunt their growth. Lifters take drugs to increase body mass. Distance runners take drugs to increase blood oxygen. Swimmers take drugs to increase endurance. And Cuba's Javier Sotomayor, who is competing after a shortened ban for a positive cocaine test, evidently took drugs for the fun of it, though he denies it.

Any more, this has become the impression -- that you can take the kid with the runny nose in sophomore chem class and, with the right amount of chemicals, turn him into the best by-gum Olympian in the world. Is the point here to create a sprinter or Captain America?

And so we watch for the purity of competition, and we wonder about the purity of blood. Take the swimming. Did you watch Inge de Bruijn, the Dutch swimmer? She won three golds, flashing through the water like nothing you've ever seen before. Oh, wait. Maybe you have. She looked a lot like Michelle Smith, the Irish swimmer who dominated in Atlanta.

If you remember, one reason Smith was a suspect in Atlanta was because her husband, Erik de Bruin, had been a discus thrower who tested positive. So Jones can brace herself for the same sort of questioning. If Jones is innocent -- and we want to believe she is -- then her husband has done her a great disservice by bringing the controversy to the Games.

And so the United States swimmers groused about the Dutch, as they had about Smith, as they had about the Chinese. It got to the point where, when Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin shared a goal medal, a Dutch journalist said, "I want to ask you about drugs, since the Americans always ask the Dutch about drugs." And it is true. U.S. women's coach Richard Quick points a fast finger.

But how about us? Aren't we suspect, too? Don't you think other countries wonder about how Jenny Thompson has resisted age? Or how Dara Torres laid off seven years and came back to win medals? As competitive a nation as we are, are we ready to believe only foreigners would seek a short cut?

The thing is, you never know who is cheating anymore. And that's the shame of it. You sit around and watch a great performance, and sometimes you will hear the question: How many athletes are doing something beyond protein shakes? The numbers are usually frighteningly high.

So far we have seen Bulgaria's weightlifting team banished after three positive tests. We have seen medals stripped from lifters. We have seen Jamaican athletes protest over the inclusion on their team of Merlene Ottey, who has been reinstated after a positive test, even have heard whispers about Ian Thorpe.

And the underlying message is this: There remain more ways to cheat than there are to catch the cheaters.

Think of it this way: You are an athlete. You are convinced the old rival from France is doing something, the hot new kid from Jamaica is on something else, and the mystery athlete from China is doing a third thing. You look at the ripples in the shoulders of sprinters, at the rash on the backs of swimmers. And you ask yourself: Is it really cheating if everyone does it? Do you want the gold enough to take the needle? To take the risk?

Every now and then you hear the question: Why don't they just drop the pretense of testing the way they dropped the pretense of amateurism. Why not give the athletes the literature about what they are doing to their bodies -- and the danger -- and then let people pump themselves to their heart's content?

Because it's cheating, that's why. Because this is supposed to be about honor and fair play. Because it isn't supposed to be a giant game of Who Do You Trust?

Because, as former runner Frank Shorter has said, "it would turn the Olympics into a freak show."

At times, it feels as if we are there already. People were shocked when Ben Johnson was caught 12 years ago; no one is shocked any more. No one believes the athletes when they talk of how the test was tainted or the urine was tampered with or how there is a conspiracy against them. No one feels the pain of Romanian Adrian Mateus, who says he will go on a hunger strike if his ban continues.

Instead, we watch them race. They go faster and faster. But is their gold real, or is it counterfeit?

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