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You think track is dirty?

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003

Everybody assumes America's best track and field athletes are on the juice.

If it's true, imagine how dirty the pros in other sports must be.

Sprinter Jon Drummond, who ran a leg for the U.S. gold medal-winning relay team in Sydney two years ago, sent an e-mail Tuesday that hints at how much bigger a splash this ''designer steroid'' story could still make.

He notes that U.S. track and field athletes can be tested anytime, anywhere and have been, about 1,700 times by the end of this year. They are tested more often for more substances ''SUDAFED!?!'' Drummond wrote at one point, referring to a popular, over-the-counter decongestant, ''What would happen if the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball players were busted for SUDAFED!'' than any other individual or team sport athletes in the world. On top of which, their samples are analyzed in state-of-the-art labs by the best scientists money can buy.

Drummond doesn't mention, though it's certainly worth noting, that even the richest among them doesn't make one-quarter of what a big-league slugger or big-time running back makes. So not only is there presumably less incentive to cheat; they have less to spend on chemists, trainers and even lawyers.

And there is no arguing with his conclusion:

''However, this is a great day for track and field because the cheaters are being caught and that is exactly what's supposed to happen,'' Drummond said.

''I hope the good that comes from this, besides cleaning up our sport even more, will be other professional sports will begin taking anti-doping as seriously as track & field.''

By now, everybody has heard some of the names and numbers being thrown around as a result of the federal grand jury probe into a nutritional supplement firm suspected of concocting the ''designer steroid'' tetrahydrogestrinone called THG that until recently was undetectable.

Victor Conte, the owner of that firm, Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, has said (also in an e-mail) he was told by athletes that 40 Olympic and professional athletes have been subpoenaed. Baseball stars Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds have received them, while maintaining their innocence, as have sprint stars Marion Jones, Kelli White and shot putter Kevin Toth.

And Terry Madden, who heads the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that took over testing of track and field athletes in 2000, did nothing to dampen speculation about who else the grand jury might summon when he said last week, ''I know of no other drug bust that is larger than this involving the number of athletes involved.''

Especially because Madden refused to reveal the names, genders, sports or even the number of athletes that had tested positive. But it gets worse.

Don Catlin, a molecular pharmacologist who led the eight-man team at UCLA's Olympic Analytical Laboratory that identified THG, told The New York Times, ''Athletes may have been using it for months or even years. Are there more drugs like it out there? My instincts tell me yes. We really don't know how many athletes are using designer steroids, but things will become clear in the coming months.''

So assume, for the moment, anyway, that some of them are Olympians.

Craig Masback, who runs USA Track & Field, does. So does U.S. Olympic Committee president Bill Martin.

''Most of our people wouldn't cheat and testing deters others, but let's not kid ourselves. Everybody in our society, in almost every endeavor, is looking for an edge. There will always be a few out there trying to beat the system,'' Masback said.

''I don't see how we can't be concerned, and not just at this moment. My feeling,'' Martin said, ''is that some number of them will always be a half-step ahead of us. But it doesn't mean we will quit trying to catch up.''

Neither would venture a guess at how many, instead insisting they were too far removed from the playing field to make a realistic assessment. Drummond, who is much closer, said only that, ''Most track and field athletes are clean. It is too easy to forget that when the only time you see us on the front page is for a doping violation.''

But all three are certain more is being done to catch the cheats than in any other sport anywhere else in the world.

''I don't care if it means we don't field our strongest teams next summer. If it means USADA needs even more resources,'' said Martin, whose organization already foots half of the drug agency's $7.5 million bill each year, ''then so be it.''

Granted, even if you take the people trying to police the use of performance-enhancing drugs by U.S. track and field athletes at their word, it's not much of a defense.

But here's what's truly unsettling about the whole mess: If their sport is anywhere near as dirty as some of the evidence suggests, considering how much more is at stake in baseball, football, basketball and all the rest all around the world, you don't want to know even half of what's really going on.

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



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