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Doping at the L.A. Games? Ignorance was bliss

Steroid use by athletes was already widespread in 1984 and the Olympics here were no exception, but the public hadn't noticed yet.

August 04, 2009|David Wharton

Twenty-five years later, it is hard to recall a time before the rumors and accusations.

A time before athletes competed without suspicion hovering around each record-setting performance.

A time before sprinters and swimmers had to share the sports page with the likes of nandrolone and stanozolol.

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, it seems, were the last innocent Summer Games before the dawn of the steroid era.

"You have to make an effort to project yourself back to before the mood changed," says John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor and expert on steroids in sports. "It was before the turning point, at least in the sense of public opinion."

Back then, Hoberman and others -- especially athletes -- knew that doping had saturated the international sports scene.

Fans, though, were still largely in the dark.

And they would remain that way for a while because, as was later revealed, a number of positive test results from the Los Angeles Games were discarded, the alleged cheating kept secret for a decade.

"We knew what was going on," said Edwin Moses, a three-time medalist in the hurdles. "But I don't think it had gotten to the point where it is now . . . the global skepticism."

Four years would pass before 100-meter champion Ben Johnson tested positive at the 1988 Seoul Games, making it impossible to look the other way.

In the summer of 1984 there was no such scandal, but there were dark clouds on the horizon.

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A warning shot

Positive tests at earlier Olympics had not generated much concern.

Athletes were caught with too much caffeine in their systems and American swimmer Rick DeMont lost his gold medal for taking asthma medication. At the 1976 Montreal Games, steroids made an appearance in weightlifting, hardly a marquee event.

If the public received any warning of what was to come, it occurred at the 1983 Pan American Games.

Officials arrived in Venezuela with an improved test for banned substances, triggering a new age in doping control. Fourteen athletes tested positive and more than a dozen members of the U.S. track and field team abruptly withdrew from their events, flying home.

The following winter, The Times ran an investigative story about Dr. Robert Kerr, a sports medicine specialist tied to the distribution of anabolic steroids who claimed to have Olympic athletes from 19 countries among his patients.

Still, in the months leading up to the 1984 Summer Games, most of the buzz centered on traffic and smog, a Soviet-led boycott and questions about whether the Olympics could be economically viable.

As it turned out, the Los Angeles organizing committee pulled off one of the most successful Games in modern history. The events ran smoothly and, with new forms of marketing and sponsorship, turned a hefty profit.

"When you got here, the banners were up and it was a festive mood," said Michele Mitchell, a silver-medalist diver in 1984 and '88. "As an athlete, there was nothing like competing before the home crowd."

If anything, the boycott made the issue of performance-enhancing drugs easier to ignore.

East Germany and its dominant female athletes -- documents would later reveal they participated in a state-authorized doping regimen -- did not compete in Los Angeles.

"The low voice, the big mass," said Mary T. Meagher Plant, who won three swimming gold medals under her maiden name. "The people who were our biggest competition were cheating."

Another no-show was Jarmila Kratochvilova, a Czechoslovakian runner whose career was dogged by rumors of steroid abuse.

"The most masculinized female I have ever seen," Hoberman said.

Among the athletes who did attend, a dozen tested positive but none were gold-medal winners. At least none the public knew about.

A decade later, the BBC reported that as many as nine positive tests from the final days of competition had been destroyed.

The results had been sent from a UCLA laboratory to the International Olympic Committee's temporary offices at the Biltmore Hotel.

Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the IOC's medical commission, said he never got a chance to match the coded results to specific athletes. He claimed the paperwork was accidentally discarded when the Los Angeles organizing committee converted his temporary office back into a suite immediately after the closing ceremony.

Local officials offered a different story, saying De Merode must have misplaced the results.

"Smoke and mirrors," said Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon researcher and anti-doping expert. "In those days, you looked the other way and said, 'Oh my goodness, what a great Olympics.' "

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A sense of hope

For the Olympic movement, Johnson's positive test at Seoul is an event frozen in time -- everyone remembers where they were, what they were doing, when it happened.

Ungerleider had just returned from a jog and was told by his wife.

Moses had finished competing, winning bronze to go with his two golds from previous Games, when an official tipped him off.

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