American attitude infuriates

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2003

This is what makes the rest of the world so mad: All last week, in Olympic-sized headlines that stretched from Down Under to just north of the border, America's image took a pounding.

Nobody here even blinked.

You mean that story about Carl Lewis taking cold medicine just before he lost to Ben Johnson in Seoul 15 years ago?'' a friend said. Please.''

It's not quite that simple.

The story begins with a disgruntled doctor who ran the U.S. Olympic Committee's drug-testing program from 1991 until his resignation in June 2000. Two weeks ago, a court threw out Wade Exum's lawsuit against the USOC alleging racial discrimination (Exum is black) and soon after, some 30,000 pages of documents from his tenure wound up at Sports Illustrated.

According to those documents, U.S. athletes tested positive for drugs more than 100 times from 1988 to 2000, but only a handful were barred from competing and 19 went on to win medals. The tests covered substances from stimulants to steroids, but few were passed on through the proper channels and even fewer resulted in sanctions.

The most famous name belonged to nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, who, coincidentally, was back in the news for using the wrong fuel once again arrested early Monday after his brand-spanking new Maserati hit a wall along a Los Angeles freeway. The crash might have shaken Lewis, but not his sense of self.

Told that Johnson was considering a lawsuit to get back the 100-meter gold medal taken from him at the 1988 Olympics after a positive steroid test, Lewis took it as a compliment.

I did 18 years of track and field and I've been retired five years, and they're still talking about me,'' he said, so I guess I still have it.''

Depends on whom you ask. Up until last week, Lewis was still admired worldwide, despite becoming a B-movie star whose credits included the forgettable Atomic Twister'' and Alien Hunter.'' But all that changed in the shuffle of a few pages.

According to Exum's documents, Lewis and Santa Monica Track Club teammates Joe DeLoach and Floyd Heard all tested positive for the same banned stimulants traces of ephedrine and several derivatives at the Olympic trials leading up to the Seoul Games. Upon receiving the results, the USOC first disqualified all three, then reversed itself after they appealed, claiming the drug use was inadvertent.

The rules at the time called for us to determine intent,'' Baaron Pittenger, who was executive director of the USOC in 1988, said over the phone Tuesday.

Pittenger said an investigation at the time concluded the level of banned stimulants in their systems was not significant enough to enhance performance. Lewis told the USOC he wasn't taking cold medication the alibi provided in dozens of such cases but acknowledged using a supplement with Ma Huang, a Chinese herb whose active ingredient is ephedrine.

These levels were less than 10 micrograms per milliliter, consistent with accidental use,'' Pittenger recalled. He also noted that if a test turned up the same levels today, it would not even require the lab to notify doping authorities.

The rules of the time were applied exactly as they were set out,'' Pittenger said. I haven't been troubled by that decision for even one moment since.''

Like Lewis' statements, that kind of certainty rubs some in the Olympic community the wrong way. The USOC says it can produce a similarly reasonable explanation for each of the 100 or so positive drug tests, but not everybody is interested in hearing them. They'd rather see the USOC on sackcloths and ashes.

Lewis thrown off his pedestal as American credibility hits new low,'' read Friday's headline in The Guardian newspaper in England. Not to be outdone, the Sydney Morning Herald trumpeted: Time for the US to join the world and come clean.''

After years of watching Americans point fingers at the rest of the world at East Germans, Russians, Chinese, Romanians, even Canadians the gesture has come full circle. Some people can barely conceal their glee.

At the very least, the results of the trials should have been nullified and Lewis should not have been allowed to represent the United States,'' Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency said. Instead, he winds up with two medals; one for the 100 meters and another for hypocrisy.''

Pound, a Canadian member of the IOC, said Exum's files confirm suspicions about drug cover-ups that swirled around the USOC for years.

I think they've got a duty now to tell the IOC and the American people, even if only in hindsight, that this is the wrong thing to have done. I don't think countenancing cheating by your own athletes, while carping about how the rest of the world carries on, is what America is all about.

At least,'' Pound added, I hope not.''

The USOC will acknowledge a perception problem, but not much else. Already facing a leadership crisis, a major downsizing, and the prospect of being dragged back into court because of bribery charges tied to the Salt Lake City bid, the last thing committee members will waste energy on is fighting 15-year-old ghosts.

Said USOC acting president Bill Martin, We've got enough to do around here already.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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