Barring injury or twist of fate, Pavle Jovanovic will walk into Olympic Stadium in Turin, Italy, on Feb. 10, 2006, in the red, white and blue of the American team, an Olympian at last.
It may be a moment of triumph, of redemption, of perseverance in the face of long odds and heartache, a reminder of the values found in commitment, will and passion. And more -- a tribute to a father’s love for a son and, as well, to a family’s embrace of freedom and the sorts of dreams perhaps only possible on these shores.
But will that moment be all that? Will America cheer for Pavle Jovanovic? Should America cheer for a bobsledder who tested positive for steroids?
Five years ago, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency assumed oversight of doping protocols for this nation’s Olympic athletes. Jovanovic was one of USADA’s first notable marks. He drew the maximum, a two-year suspension. And now, he’s apparently the first athlete in the USADA era to return to the Olympic team after serving those two years away for steroids.
His case illustrates the complexities inherent in the fight against doping. It raises questions of fairness and temperance, even as it underscores the premise that underlies anti-doping: no athlete, really, can be trusted.
That’s the way the system is set up -- with a rule making it clear that if an athlete tests positive for an illicit substance, that athlete is liable.
It doesn’t matter how the substance got there or even if the athlete has no idea how it got there.
It doesn’t matter if the athlete didn’t mean to cheat.
He, or she, is on the hook.
Even if, as Pavle Jovanovic insists, “I did nothing wrong.”
On Dec. 29, 2001, Jovanovic turned in a urine sample. On Jan. 17, 2002, just three weeks before the start of the Salt Lake Games, he was told he had tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. Testimony would later show his levels at more than six times the permitted limit.
He was, he says now, bewildered, angry and ashamed.
He called his father, Radomir.
When he was a boy in what was then Yugoslavia, Radomir Jovanovic says, Communists killed his own father and a brother. When he was in his mid-20s, he sneaked into Italy, across the border into Trieste, eventually making his way to the United States.
That was roughly 45 years ago. He has never been back to his homeland.
“I come to live in freedom,” he said.
Radomir Jovanovic, a construction worker, is nearing 70. Weekday mornings, he goes to job sites.
“With God’s help, I’m going to work, work as long as God gives me strength,” he said. “I don’t believe in retirement.”
After testing positive, Pavle Jovanovic says, his phone call back home to New Jersey, “brought tears to my eyes.”
Pavle is the third child, the youngest.
“He did everything the best,” said his mother, Zlatija.
As the son grew proficient in the bobsled, the father built for him -- with his own hands -- a push track in the backyard, 170 feet of steel.
“For some reason,” Pavle Jovanovic told his father that morning, “I’ve tested positive and right now they’re telling me there’s a good possibility I’m not going to make it to the Olympics.”
Pavle recalls now, “He was absolutely destroyed. He couldn’t believe what I had just told him. Later on, he told me he had to stop working that day -- he had to leave the job, go home and just be among the rest of my family.”
With the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics looming, the case against the young Jovanovic moved fast.
He acknowledged that he was something of a supplement hound, an arbitration panel later noting that he’d used 31 pills or powders and that on the day of the test he had consumed 10, perhaps 11, such supplements.
But, he said, he had not knowingly ingested a steroid. He said it must have been in one of the supplements. Later, he sued a supplement maker in federal court in Utah, charging that a protein supplement he’d bought in Park City on Dec. 21, 2001, was the source. The case is pending.
On Jan. 26, a domestic arbitration panel ruled Jovanovic liable and handed down a nine-month suspension.
He appealed. On Feb. 7, the day before the start of the Games, an international sports panel also found against Jovanovic. It said, however, that the correct penalty was a two-year ban. It also said -- and this is in part why the rule on what is called “strict liability” is the way it is -- that the steroid “may have been contained in the supplements but, on the other hand ... it may have been injected.” It was, the panel said, impossible to know.
In the four-man runs that followed at the Salt Lake Games, a U.S. team led by Todd Hays -- driving the sled Jovanovic probably would have been on -- won silver. Another U.S. four-man sled won bronze.
It was all a blur, Jovanovic said. He went back home to New Jersey.
“It was just a nightmare for me,” he said, adding that he felt “completely detached” from family and friends, and that he “did battle alcohol.”
Zlatija Jovanovic added, “My husband had surgery on his gall bladder, from all the stress.”
This went on, her son said, for months. Then one day, he looked out the window at the track in the backyard and realized it could, maybe, be his salvation.
He began training again. With no guarantees, no formal support.
“In blizzard,” his mother said. “In rain. In snow. Nice weather. He is training. All the time, training.”
He also gave up supplements. Now, he says, he relies on chicken and vegetables.
“I truly love the sport,” he says. “I especially love the feeling that I get when everybody’s in sync, all cylinders are pumping like the pistons on an engine and everybody is firing 100% on my team. There’s nothing that can top that.”
Last winter, Hays’ four-man team, with Jovanovic on it, won two World Cup races and finished second in another. Americans, said Tuffy Latour, U.S. men’s national team coach, “should cheer for [Jovanovic] and I think they will cheer for him. He has served his time.”
Hays said, “I have been around a number of athletes in my athletic career and have never seen someone so dedicated and passionate to try to be the best,” adding, “If I can cheer for him, I think everyone else should be able to. If I believe him, I know everyone else should.”
Americans, after all, believe in second chances, don’t they? Said Jovanovic, “I can’t hide the fact that my dream in the past has been overshadowed by so much skepticism.” Drawing a deep breath, he sighed and said slowly, choosing his words with care, “As much as I will try to do my best in the next five months, it will obviously be for this country. If the country embraces me back, like I hope it does, it will make me that much more proud of anything I can accomplish.”