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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPICS

Even Winners Can't Escape Taint of Drugs

September 28, 2000|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — That isn't the Olympic flame snapping and crackling high above Sydney's Olympic Stadium--that's the night light next to the world's largest medicine cabinet.

Drugs here, drugs there, drugs were nearly everywhere the Olympic track and field competition turned Wednesday as an embattled sport winced and grimaced through its worst nightmare.

One day after the meet was jarred by the news of U.S. shotputter C.J. Hunter testing positive for nandrolone, international track officials hung their heads as they hung gold medals around the necks of two athletes who had been previously banned for doping violations.

That came a few hours after they were forced to literally drag the women's world hammer-throw champion off the field because she had failed a drug test.

Along the way, the favorite in the women's 100-meter hurdles pulled up injured in the semifinals, hobbled into a news conference and was promptly asked if her sudden withdrawal would trigger drug suspicion.

And after a long day of trying--and succeeding--to progress through preliminary rounds in the long jump and the 200 meters, the marquee track star of these Olympics was asked how she was coping with the news of her husband's positive drug test.

Sydney 2000 organizers would like to interrupt this convention on performance-enhancing drugs for a track and field meet, any day now, but winners, losers and also-banneds won't let them.

More than Nils Schumann's upset of world-record holder Wilson Kipketer in the men's 800 or Angelo Taylor's last-gasp dash to the men's 400 hurdles gold, Wednesday will be remembered as the day:

* Gold medals were presented in the women's discus to Belarus' Ellina Zvereva, who had previously served a 12-month suspension for steroids, and in the women's 100 hurdles to Kazakhstan's Olga Shishigina, who sat out the 1996 Olympics while serving a two-year ban for stanozolol, the same drug that cost sprinter Ben Johnson his gold medal at the 1988 Summer Games.

* Women's hammer-throw world champion Mihaela Melinte of Romania was ordered off the field by officials when she tried to compete in the Olympic final because two days earlier, Romanian officials were informed that Melinte had failed a test for nandrolone.

* World champion Gail Devers of the United States pulled up in her 100-meter hurdles semifinal because of hamstring trouble and was asked by reporters if her withdrawal would raise suspicion that she, too, was illegally enhanced.

"It would never be a thought that crossed my mind," Devers shot back. "These are the Olympic Games--of course, all the news that comes out isn't positive and things happen, but me pulling up was an injury! You can't relate an injury to what people will speculate. That's not fair."

Perhaps not, but no one ever said international track and field was fair.

Not now, not with the silhouette of a doping syringe threatening to overshadow the five rings waving above Olympic Stadium.

Not even Marion Jones could outrun the topic of the day. After advancing through two rounds of 200-meter heats and qualifying for the women's long jump final with a first attempt of 22 feet 3 inches, Jones had to field questions about Hunter, her husband, and the furor surrounding his positive steroids test.

"I have pushed everything that has happened over the last few days to the back of my mind," Jones said. "It's all about business now."

Completing two 200-meter sprints in 22.75 and 22.50 seconds was a breeze, Jones maintained, compared to the controversy surrounding Hunter.

"This is where I love to be," Jones said, motioning to the track. "I love to be out there in front of the fans. It kind of gets my mind off everything else--and there's so much going on right now. I'll deal with it all after Sydney."

In the meantime, Jones is trying to win four more gold medals. Trying to block out the off-the-field events of the last two days "has been difficult," she said. "But having my family here and having total support and getting some phone calls from people back home has helped. Overall, I think the support has been incredible. I think that's the reason I've been able to get through it.

"I've had several friends e-mail me, saying, 'C.J., Marion, you're in our prayers and we believe in you 100%. Prove them all wrong. Go out there and win all your golds.' "

When Devers, a three-time world champion, pulled out of the 100-meter hurdles competition, it threw the final wide open--so wide that Shishigina and her drug history could sprint through to the top of the medal podium.

Shishigina won the final with a time of 12.65 seconds, just ahead of Nigeria's Glory Alozie (12.68) and the United States' Melissa Morrison (12.76). Alozie finished second while carrying an overwhelming burden; her fiance, Hyginus Anugo, a Nigerian 400-meter runner, was killed when he was hit by a car in Sydney a few days before the Games.

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