Olympic la-la land

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.

"It was just terrible news," the hurdler said. "It wasn't totally unexpected, but it was groundbreaking in that, for the first time, a major competitor had been busted at the Olympic Games."

Sports were entering a dark period. In the years that followed, other big stars including U.S. sprinter Marion Jones would be caught. The steroid era extended well beyond the Olympics.

It crippled the Tour de France. In professional baseball, it landed stars such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa before a congressional committee and home run king Barry Bonds in a federal courtroom.

Athletes could sense that fans watched the ensuing Games differently.

"The innocence had gone away," said Mitchell, the longtime diving coach at the University of Arizona. "There had been many a story of Olympic athletes gone bad. People weren't as starry-eyed."

Skepticism has been particularly strong in sports that emphasize numbers.

"There is something about establishing a record, something in the record books," Ungerleider said. "We all look with a more suspicious eye."

Yet, for the first time in a long time, anti-doping experts are guardedly optimistic.

They hope that with each prominent athlete who gets caught -- including the Dodgers' Manny Ramirez -- the deterrence factor rises. At the same time, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency have established tougher protocols as the science of testing catches up to cheaters.

"Athletes who want to get around the rules have to go to extreme measures," said Moses, who has devoted himself to the cause of doping control.

Which raises a question: Can the Olympics recapture any of that lost innocence?

Mitchell doubts the public will ever fully trust athletes again. Ungerleider, though encouraged by progress in testing, concedes that doping control has a long way to go.

There is a certain wistfulness in his voice when he recalls the atmosphere at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, fans talking sports instead of pharmacology.

"Those were the good old days," he says.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bummer Olympics

Notable scandals that affected post-1984 Olympic Games:

1988 SUMMER OLYMPICS

* Canadian Ben Johnson stripped of 100 meters gold medal; tested positive for stanozolol.

2000 SUMMER OLYMPICS

* Romanian Andreea Raducan became first gymnast stripped of a medal (gold); tested positive for pseudoephedrine.

* Marion Jones agreed to forfeit three gold medals (100 meters, 200, 1,600 relay) and two bronze medals (400 relay, long jump) after admitting to taking performance-enhancing drugs.

2004 SUMMER OLYMPICS

* Ukraine stripped of women's quadruple sculls bronze medal after Olena Olefirenko tested positive for Ethamivan.

* Leonidas Sampanis stripped of bronze medal in 62-kilogram weightlifting; tested positive for excess testosterone.

* Russian Irina Korzhanenko stripped of gold in the women's shotput; tested positive for stanozolol.

* Hungarian Robert Fazekas was stripped of gold medal and Olympic record in the men's discus; failed to produce a sufficient urine sample, left test facility early.

* Adrian Annus stripped of gold medal in the hammer throw; caught tampering with test sample.

2008 SUMMER OLYMPICS

* North Korean Kim Jong Su stripped of silver medal in 50-meter pistol and bronze in 10-meter air pistol; tested positive for propranolol.

* Ukrainian Liudmyla Blonska stripped of heptathlon silver medal; tested positive for the anabolic steroid methyltestosterone.

Source: BBC Sport, Times research

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