'Clearly, we're the overdogs right about now'

Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2003

Ignorance of the rules is no defense, but it's the only one U.S. sprinter Kelli White has.

''It's seven days after the results of her test and the people at the international federation still don't know whether what she was taking was performance-enhancing,'' USA Track & Field chief Craig Masback said Tuesday. ''So how was she supposed to know?''

Fair question. White, who won both the 100 and 200 meters, was the only individual double gold medalist at the just-ended World Championships, an effort that fueled the American team's best finish in a decade. But the view from that peak turns out to be as shaky as it is exhilarating.

The fate of one or both of White's medals remains unclear. The International Association of Athletics Federations continues to study modafinil, a prescription medication White insisted she used to combat the sleep disorder narcolepsy.

She said she didn't report the drug on her medical form because it's not on the sport's banned list. The IAAF countered modafinil falls under the stimulants category of ''related substances.''

Under the best-case scenario, the international federation could have accepted White's explanation and cleared her of any wrongdoing. There is almost zero chance of that still happening. Under the worst-case, White could have wound up watching the Olympic torch lighting ceremony Aug. 13 in Athens on TV from her living room sofa.

IAAF rules set out one punishment for the use of light stimulants like ephedrine disqualification and a warning and another for heavier stuff like amphetamines disqualification and a two-year ban.

On Wednesday, IAAF general secretary Istvan Gyulai announced White would not be suspended, and his organization will review her medical records Monday and decide if she committed a doping offense. If so, the IAAF will ask the U.S. federation to begin disciplinary procedures a process that can take a year or more.

She stands to lose $60,000 in prize money for each gold, not to mention considerable prestige.

''Whatever happens, I do intend to fight to keep the medals,'' White said from Belgium, where she prepared to compete in a Golden League meet. ''Whatever I have to do to keep them I will do that.''

No one, least of all Masback, is willing to ask publicly whether she or any American athlete, for that matter is likely to get a fair trial in the current climate.

But there is already grumbling in some corners of the track world that the United States, the sport's dominant superpower, will be even more unbeatable if its athletes prove as tough to catch in the lab as they were on the track last week in Paris.

''There's no reason to believe anyone has it out for us,'' Masback said in a telephone interview from the federation's offices in Indianapolis. ''Still, there's no question that just like people root against the Yankees or Manchester United, they like to see a guy from St. Kitts win the 100 meters against a bunch of heavily favored Americans.''

The United States slipped past Russia to tally the most medals at the worlds 20-19 and golds 10-6, but many came from unexpected winners and the final count probably will reverse that order. Still, no other country managed more than seven total or three golds.

Sympathy will likely remain in short supply. Compounding White's problems is the perception that U.S. athletes have benefited in the past, and continue to benefit, from some very slick cover-ups.

Earlier this year, a disgruntled doctor who ran the U.S. Olympic Committee's drug-testing program from 1991 until his resignation in June 2000, provided documents to several media outlets showing 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 and the most famous name belonged to nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis. Yet few of the tests were passed on through proper channels and even fewer resulted in sanctions.

Last month, Mickey Grimes was given a warning and stripped of his gold medal in the 100 after testing positive for a stimulant at the Pan American Games.

Then last week, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Jerome Young, who won the 400 in Paris and ran the anchor leg for the winning 1,600 relay team had tested positive for a steroid in 1999 but had been allowed to run in Olympics the next summer after winning an appeal to USATF.

Though none of that should have any bearing on White's case, the notion of guilt by association is strong.

She protested her innocence after a positive test in the 100, tested clean after the 200, and withdrew from the 400 relay team (which finished second) because of concerns her participation could subsequently mean that medal was taken away as well.

Back at USATF headquarters, Masback was already starting work on a summit meeting planned for October in Miami, where U.S. athletes, their coaches and agents will get together to discuss the problems in Paris and how to stop them from recurring. Equally revealing, he has also proposed opening an international relations department within the federation to get the U.S. side of the story out to the rest of the world.

''People love underdogs,'' he said, ''and clearly, we're overdogs right about now.''

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

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