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Drug Bans, Suspicions Only Make Matters Worse

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is August in the 1999 track and field season, the drug days of summer.

The Pan American Games have just ended in Winnipeg, Canada. The world championships are about to begin in Seville, Spain. It is a time for gold medals and world-record chases and, for American track athletes, a welcome respite from the routine obscurity under which they labor during non-Olympic years.

Instead, the newspapers are glutted with black headlines bearing dark news.

Dennis Mitchell, 100-meter champion at the 1999 U.S. championships, banned until next year for failing a 1998 drug test.

Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor, the greatest high jumper in history, suspended for testing positive for cocaine.

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Sprinter Linford Christie, recently lauded by Total Sport magazine as Great Britain’s sportsman of the decade, hit with a positive result for the anabolic steroid nandrolone in a doping test conducted earlier this year.

Merlene Ottey, the superb Jamaican sprinter, knocked out of the world championships for also testing positive for nandrolone.

In June, American Maurice Greene breaks the world record in the sport’s glamour event--the men’s 100 meters--with a time of 9.79 seconds. Rather than celebration, Greene’s feat is greeted by suspicion in some media outlets. The Times of London reports the news by writing:

“Greene’s time, 9.79sec, will send a chill down the spine of the sport, for it was 9.79sec that Ben Johnson ran in the 1988 Olympic final only for the hero of Seoul to be revealed a villain. Johnson was disqualified and his time annulled, after failing a drugs test in the biggest fall from grace in the Games history.

“However, provided that the testers verify Greene as a clean machine--and he has never failed a drugs test--he will go into the books as the athlete who improved the world record legally by the greatest margin since electronic timing was first used officially 22 years ago.”

Track and field is an island unto itself when it comes to such cynical scrutiny. Very few pro football game reports begin: “In a stirring comeback, the Minnesota Vikings rallied to defeat the Green Bay Packers, 33-32, Sunday, but the result cannot be considered official until the drug tests come back.”

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This, U.S. track proponents contend, is because no American sport scrutinizes its athletes as closely for performance-enhancing drugs as track and field. No American sport, they say, even comes close.

“What’s really ironic is track and field makes a more bona fide effort to catch drug cheats than any other sport and we suffer for it,” says Tom Jordan, meet promoter for the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore.

“I mean, I could go to any NFL team in the country, do a random drug test and they would all be banned. Come on. Let’s face reality here.

“And it bothers me that the only time track and field gets a message in some publications and on some newscasts is when somebody is banned for drugs. Well, if you’re not going to cover the sport when it’s clean, don’t cover it when it’s dirty.”

Many in U.S. track point to the double-standard over androstenedione, the body-building supplement used by shotputter Randy Barnes and St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire. In 1998, Barnes was banned for life for testing positive for androstenedione; McGwire became an American icon after breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.

“One of the things that hurts track and field is that the general public’s perception is such that these Olympic athletes are held to a higher standard,” says Scott Davis, meet director for the Mt. SAC Relays. “I just think the folks that play pro basketball and baseball and football, I just don’t think the general public cares if they’re taking performance-enhancing drugs.

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“Mark McGwire was very open about it--he was using basically the same thing that got Randy Barnes banned for life. Where is the logic in that? I just think it’s totally unfair that he is able to use what he wants to use and here Randy Barnes can no longer compete because he uses the same thing. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Something’s screwed up.”

Emanuel Hudson, the agent who represents Greene, says he anticipated suspicion over his client’s world-record time, which is why he says he instructed the on-site drug testing staff to “go in there and make sure you’re doing the drug test properly. Do you want pieces of his hair? Blood? Do whatever it takes. We don’t want there to be any question.”

Earlier this week, Greene’s world record was officially certified by the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body.

“We weren’t sitting around on pins and needles,” Hudson said upon hearing the news, “but that’s good to know. I can go bill out some people now.”

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