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Searching for fairness in doping cases

Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2004

Justice and fairness are sometimes lost in the worthy pursuit of drug-free Olympics.

It happened to Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan in Sydney four years ago and it's happening to American sprinter Torri Edwards in Athens now. Neither one was attempting to cheat, yet both have been treated as if they were among the worst doping offenders.

The punishments against them amount to overkill, elephant guns against mosquitoes, the ruling bodies of their sports exercising power without compassion or wisdom.

Raducan's case the loss of the coveted all-around gold when she was 16 centered on her positive test for the over-the-counter cold remedy pseudoephedrine, a banned stimulant at the time that was given to her by the team doctor. Compounding the injustice, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed pseudoephedrine from its banned list last fall.

''I'm waiting for them to give me my medal back,'' Raducan told The Associated Press in an interview in Bucharest a few months ago.

She may have to wait the rest of her life, just like numerous other athletes punished foolishly under the old rules that also banned caffeine.

Edwards, the reigning world champion in the 100, still has a slim chance of having the decision against her reversed through an appeal to the international Court of Arbitration for Sport before the start of the track events on Aug. 20.

Edwards was suspended Wednesday and declared ineligible for the Olympics because she tested positive for nikethamide, a banned stimulant that she said she didn't know was in a glucose supplement given to her by her doctor at a meet in Martinique in April.

An outspoken supporter of anti-drug efforts in track and field, Edwards claimed she had no reason to cheat or risk her Olympic eligibility at the tiny Martinique meet. She was the star attraction there with little competition, had already been paid her appearance fee, and took the sugar mixture only because she wasn't feeling well and didn't want to disappoint the crowd.

Her physician, Dr. Christopher Vincent, with whom she has since severed ties, bought the offending product, Coramine Glucose, at a local store.

Should anyone, especially the CAS, believe Edwards? Do the circumstances warrant special treatment, an exemption from the ''strict liability'' standard that holds that athletes are responsible for any banned drug found in their body?

Plenty of athletes who tested positive for drugs have claimed they were innocent, that they didn't know they were taking a banned substance or that someone must have spiked their orange juice.

In sports, there is no shortage of cheaters and liars shedding crocodile tears.

Among the more recent examples was American sprinter Kelli White, who wept convincingly when she claimed she took the prescription stimulant modafinil at the 2003 world championships only because she suffered the sleep disorder narcolepsy.

White, who won the 100 and 200 at that meet, kept protesting and appealing for months until the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency confronted her with evidence she couldn't deny. Sifting through documents from the federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, USADA said it found she used undetectable steroids and the endurance-enhancing hormone erythropoietin.

''In doing this, I have not only cheated myself, but also my family, friends and sport,'' White said in May in a statement issued by her attorney. ''I am sorry for the poor choices I have made.''

White, 27, received a two-year ban the same punishment track's ruling body, the IAAF, now wants to hand Edwards.

The difference, though, is that Edwards has not been linked to any other drugs and her story of taking nikethamide inadvertently at a minor meet rings true. A warning is in order, but a two-year ban and a boot from the Olympics is excessive.

A three-member U.S. arbitration panel that heard Edwards' case seemed to agree when it found there might have been exceptional circumstances in her case. A doping review board of the IAAF rejected that, saying it was bound by the strict liability rule.

''We are, at best, disappointed, and at worst, cynical, about the ruling which took place in Torri's matter,'' a statement from her track club, HSInternational, said after the IAAF ruling. ''Charging her with the harshest punishment that has ever been given to any athlete, in any sport, for this type of violation, surely points to this case not being decided on its merits, but one decided upon based on politics and prejudice.''

Now it's up to the CAS, which will have the final word within the next week.

The strict liability rule has served sport well in most instances. But if the fight against doping is to succeed, if athletes and the public are going to have confidence in the fairness of the governing bodies, there has to be some recognition that not all cases are the same.

Raducan was a victim of an inflexible system in Sydney. Edwards ought not be another victim now.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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