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A Testing Time : Back in Competition, Jeff Michels Came Up Just a Little Bit Light

July 27, 1987|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. — There are a number of other ways Jeff Michels would have chosen to make headlines in sports sections across the United States.

Of 11 weightlifters who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, Michels was the lone American. He was stripped of the three gold medals he won in the heavyweight division (242 1/2 pounds) and suspended for two years by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF).

What is an athlete to do?

Michels sued.

He lost and was ineligible for the 1984 Summer Olympics, where he would have won the gold medal if he had lifted the same amount of weight he did before the Pan American Games, a combined total of 898 pounds in the snatch and clean and jerk.

That might have won in Los Angeles even if there had not been a boycott of the Soviet Bloc countries, which dominate the sport. It would have won him a silver medal at the 1985 world championships, which were not boycotted.

By that time, Michels had retired from weightlifting. After suffering a back injury, he was warned by a doctor he risked permanent disability if he continued to lift. So he lost 27 pounds and took up tae kwon do , which is not backbreaking, just bone breaking.

"It was a lot of fun, but not as fulfilling as lifting," he said. "No sport holds the interest for me that lifting does."

In 1986, Michels sought second and third opinions from doctors, who could not find the damage to his back and told him there was no reason for him not to lift weights.

That is what Michels, 25, was doing Sunday at the Raleigh Civic Center on the final day of the U.S. Olympic Festival.

It was his second competition of the year and the second time he has finished behind another Chicago lifter, Rich Schutz.

Michels and Schutz both lifted 336 pounds in the snatch, but Schutz had the advantage in the clean and jerk, 418 3/4 to 369.

Michels' total of 705 is about 43 pounds short of what he needed to qualify for the Pan American Games, Aug. 8-23 in Indianapolis. All things considered, Michels, who has been recovering for the last six weeks from an injury to his left knee, was not disappointed.

"I wanted to go to the Pan Am Games because I consider it a nice tune-up event for the Olympics," he said. "It's the biggest event in the hemisphere every four years. As far as my not going, it was just my procrastination that prevented it.

"It feels as if I've started all over again. The hardest thing is not being able to lift weights that I did when I first started, but I've got to remember that I was off for a year and a half and not get too depressed.

"I waited too long as far as doing anything about getting ready for the Pan Am Games. But, luckily, I didn't wait too long for the Olympic Games."

He said he no longer is bitter about the Caracas experience. While he said he still has doubts about the accuracy of the drug testing in 1983, particularly for the substance that grounded him, testosterone, he said he believes it is fair today because both the technology and the people employing it have improved. But, he said, that is one weightlifter's opinion, not a scientist's.

"I'm not an expert in that area," he said. "What they tell me goes in one ear and out the other."

As Michels talked to a group of reporters, Harvey Newton, executive director of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, sat next to him and fielded questions that Michels could not answer.

Newton said he believes that because Michels tested positive in Caracas weightlifting in the United States is cleaner than it was four years ago.

For evidence, he presents the fact that only four national records have been set since 1984.

Asked if other factors besides drug testing have contributed to that, he said, "I can't think of any."

The U.S. Weightlifting Federation, he said, is the only national governing body that tests all of its athletes at every major championship.

"They told us here that they wanted to test six lifters the first day and two the second," Newton said. "I said, 'No way, test everyone.'

"It's unfortunate Jeff had to be the one who got caught, but it has made a difference in the United States Olympic Committee's approach to drug testing.

"We had been asking for drug testing before Caracas, but the USOC could not do much for us except in the area of education. They were unable to give us any testing. Now the USOC is among the leaders in the world in drug testing."

Newton said the IWF also has improved its drug testing program, which includes unannounced, random tests of lifters during their training periods.

Even with the most sophisticated drug-testing equipment, officials often cannot detect some substances if the athlete has quit using them several weeks before a competition.

But if an athlete believes he might be tested 8 to 10 weeks before a competition, he might not want to take the risk of using banned substances during training.

Of 1,806 tests conducted by the IWF in 1986, only 18 were positive. That is less than 1%, below the 1.8% of positives averaged in all sports in 1986.

But Newton said there is still skepticism when world records are broken, particularly by Soviet Bloc athletes.

Some people question the testing in Eastern Europe. Others wonder if some lifters have found methods to beat the tests.

"I think everybody is changing," Newton said. "The Soviets, from their official statements, are testing more seriously than they did in the past.

"As a result, the Soviets are losing to the Bulgarians, Hungarians and Romanians. Everyone is getting a piece of the action now."

Michels is ready for his.

"Whatever is behind me doesn't make any difference now," he said. "I'm just going forward."

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