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Doping Scandal Dogs U.S.

The 'sleaze factor' from the disqualification of several track and field athletes has tainted the entire delegation heading to Athens.

August 08, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — With the Summer Games set to begin Friday, the entire 531-member U.S. team arrives here under a cloud of suspicion, shadowed by the most significant doping scandal in U.S. Olympic history, according to experts, officials and athletes.

Since Jan. 1, more than 20 track and field athletes have been sanctioned, implicated or identified as the focus of an inquiry in a scandal sparked in large part by the investigation of BALCO, a nutritional supplements company in Burlingame, Calif. Prosecutors allege that BALCO's founder, Victor Conte, and three others distributed steroids to athletes. All four have pleaded not guilty to federal charges.

With the Games drawing near, some experts say, the integrity and credibility of the entire U.S. Olympic program are at issue.

"U.S. track and field is just out of control," said Dick Pound, a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee and president of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency. "There's a kind of sleaze factor that is unfortunately affecting all the athletes, and that's not fair. But it's affecting all of them."

For the U.S. Olympic effort, "this is our Ben Johnson moment," said Gary Wadler, a Long Island physician and anti-doping expert, referring to the outcry in Canada when Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 100-meter dash in 1988 at the Seoul Games upon the disclosure of a positive steroid test.

U.S. swimmer Lindsay Benko, a Sydney gold medalist who will swim the 200-meter freestyle in Athens, said: "It's an extremely unfortunate situation, not just for track and field but for all Olympic sports. I think it does overshadow what the Olympics are supposed to be about and it's kind of what the Olympics has come to."

The doping scandal involving U.S. track and field athletes has, at times, seemed relentless this year:

Twelve athletes have been sanctioned for doping offenses, including four for using THG, the designer steroid at the center of the BALCO matter. The 12 account for half of the 23 sanctions announced this year by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Four sprinters face a lifetime ban from competition, including Tim Montgomery, the world-record holder in the 100-meter dash.

Marion Jones, winner of five medals at Sydney, three of them gold, and possibly the nation's most famous track star, remains under scrutiny. Jones, expected to compete here in the long jump, has consistently denied the use of performance-enhancing substances. She and Montgomery are companions and the parents of a 1-year-old boy.

Jones' ex-husband, former shotput champion C.J. Hunter, told federal investigators that she had used banned substances before, during and after the Sydney Games, according to a report recently published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her lawyers say Hunter is lying.

Sprinter Torri Edwards, a medal hope in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, last month acknowledged that she inadvertently used the banned stimulant nikethamide. On Thursday, track's worldwide governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, imposed a two-year ban that would keep her out of the Olympics, barring an appeal.

On Monday, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that sprinter Calvin Harrison was out for two years because of a positive test last year for the stimulant modafinil. Barring a successful appeal, he is ineligible for the 2004 Games.

Moreover, the International Olympic Committee, in a rare action, is weighing whether to strip the U.S. men's 1,600-meter relay team of its gold medals from Sydney because Jerome Young, who ran in the preliminary rounds of the relay, tested positive the year before for a banned steroid. Harrison ran in that relay, as did his twin brother, Alvin; Alvin Harrison is among those facing a life ban.

"It's a dark moment in U.S. Olympic history," said Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon researcher and author of "Faust's Gold," a study of the East German doping machine of the 1970s and 1980s. Referring to those U.S. team members who are playing by the rules, he added, "Their moment of glory is being overshadowed by these dark clouds."

The run-up to Athens hardly marks the first time doping revelations have marred Olympic sports.

In the 1990s, 32 Chinese swimmers were caught for drug offenses, according to "Swimming's Hall of Shame," a history of doping offenses compiled by Brent Rushall, a sports scientist at San Diego State University.

At Sydney, three Bulgarian weightlifters were disqualified after testing positive. In Australia, Olympic and anti-doping officials are sorting out a scandal involving cyclists and possible human use of a growth hormone designed for horses.

And, a generation ago, East German swimmers dominated the Olympics, but only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did it emerge that the East German government had doped its athletes.

Ungerleider stresses that the BALCO scandal does not compare to what happened in East Germany. The U.S. government is not systematically doping young people, he said.

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