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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Romanian Gymnast Caught in Middle

Analysis: In a time of zero tolerance, she gets controversially stripped of gold medal instead of possibly setting a bad precedent.

September 29, 2000|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — What broke the heart of a 16-year-old waif, shattered a nation, left a doctor's career in tatters and ultimately eluded Ion Tiriac's powers of persuasion was all about a simple cold pill.

The banned substance--pseudoephedrine--was in the cold tablet given to Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan shortly before she won the gold medal in the all-around competition. It might have eased her cold and flu symptoms but it didn't enhance her performance. In fact, she said it made her dizzy. Not exactly an ideal recipe for the balance beam.

You don't need a doctor's prescription for this cold medication. It is available over the counter. But pseudoephedrine, a stimulant, is on the IOC's list of banned substances during the Olympics.

Here, the Romanian doctor's mistake triggered a nightmare for the sprite. After she tested positive, the IOC stripped her of her gold medal in the all-around event and the Court of Arbitration for Sport denied her appeal Thursday. It was the first time a gymnast had lost a gold medal because of a positive drug test.

The decision was no surprise, really, in the era of strict liability and zero tolerance. A ruling in favor of the gymnast would have opened the floodgates, presenting an I-didn't-know-what-I-was-taking defense for other athletes.

It might have made an impact in Arizona. Rick DeMont, former Olympic swimmer and University of Arizona assistant swim coach who was stripped of his gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle in 1972 after he'd tested positive for ephedrine, has been engaged in a long fight to regain it.

The banned substance was present in prescription asthma medication DeMont was taking, and he never concealed that, listing it on all of his official paperwork. Bids to get the gold medal back were rejected twice by the IOC in 1996.

One previous case that gave the DeMont team encouragement was that of Australian swimmer Samantha Riley, who failed a drug test in 1995 after taking a headache tablet containing a banned pain killer--administered to her by her coach. She was warned but not banned by FINA, the international governing body.

Tiriac, a former international tennis star and now president of the Romanian Olympic committee, said he used the Riley case as precedent. The same medication was also given to Raducan's teammate, Simona Amanar, who moved up to the gold-medal spot, but she did not test positive because she weighs more than Raducan. The doctor has been banned for four years.

"He's going to be the devil from now on," Tiriac said of the doctor's reception in Romania. "He's not a bad man."

Said Romanian icon and former Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci, "It's difficult for me to explain to her in my own language that you're innocent, but you're still not going to get the medal."

Raducan, who will turn 17 on Saturday, was seated next to Tiriac, looking small and weary in a light blue sweater at a news conference. Her voice was clear and unwavering, as she spoke through a translator.

"I don't understand why everything has turned out this way. I am at peace that I have done everything right," Raducan said. "My whole dream was to come to the Olympics and win a medal. I lost a medal, but in my soul, I know that this was my place."

Said Amanar, "The winner that day was Andreea, not me."

Reports circulated that the Romanians would return their medals, but the gymnasts will keep them, saying they belong to Romania. Maria Olaru of Romania also moved up one place, taking the silver medal.

Tiriac dominated the news conference, dropping hints of conspiracy theories. He also said he would resign because he could not bring himself to ban Raducan for life, a rule he made for athletes found guilty of doping. At one point, in 1989, the drug in question was taken off the banned list but was put back on a year later.

Tiriac, the former manager of Boris Becker and one of the most influential figures in tennis as a player and promoter, tried to influence the court of public opinion after he had not succeeded in the courtroom.

After one long answer, he apologized, saying, "My English is not Shakespearean."

It has been a long Olympics for Tiriac, who needed to put up $50,000 of his own money to get his weightlifters back in the Games. The seven-person Romanian weightlifting team had been banned after two athletes tested positive for nandrolone in out-of-competition testing.

"Maybe the Court of Arbitration should not be for sport," Tiriac said. "Maybe it should be less involved in sports and more involved in law."

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