Swimming is going round and round over drug cases Foschi's fate still unclear after Riley's slap on wrist

Olympics

March 03, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The careers of Jessica Foschi and Samantha Riley will never converge in a swimming pool, but they have been linked by recent decisions regarding their eligibility to compete in this summer's Olympic Games.

Foschi, a 15-year-old from Long Island, has been at the center of a controversy since it was disclosed that she tested positive for an anabolic steroid at the Phillips 66 outdoor championships last August.

After initially giving Foschi a two-year probation, U.S. Swimming reversed its decision in November and announced that the promising teen-ager was being banned for two years. That decision was applauded strongly by those trying to clean up a sport dirtied by last year's drug scandal involving the Chinese women's team.

No country applauded more enthusiastically than Australia, which along with the United States and Canada had been at the forefront of more stringent drug-testing policies. But that was before one of its own stars, double world-record holder Riley, was found to have taken a prescription headache pill during the short-course world championships in Brazil in November.

(The pill, given to Riley by her coach, contained a drug that was on the International Olympic Committee's banned-substances list. But unlike the steroid found in Foschi's system, it is believed to have had no performance-enhancing effect.)

The official announcement on Riley didn't come until after Foschi's case had gone before a review panel, but at least one prominent U.S. Swimming official had been told about it by reporters during a break in the daylong meetings.

Some even believed that the decision to ban Foschi, considered a long shot to make the U.S. team in the 800-meter freestyle, was in part a way to ensure an equally tough penalty for Riley, one of the favorites in both the 100- and 200- meter breaststroke this summer.

Those suspicions were only heightened when U.S. Swimming reversed itself again after FINA, the sport's international governing body, gave Riley nothing more than a stern warning.

Now with Foschi eligible, it's up to FINA to decide whether to let the most recent ruling stand, or to suspend her again in accordance with its rules. Foschi will compete in the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, which begin Wednesday in Indianapolis. FINA officials said they still could ban Foschi from competing in the Olympics even if she makes the U.S. team.

"Everyone all over the world will be watching this," said Harold Cliff, the president of Swim Canada, adding that if the most recent decision is upheld, "it will certainly be setting a precedent for involuntary use of steroids."

Mark Levinstein, a Washington-based attorney representing Foschi and her family, said last week that he isn't sure how the steroid got into his client's system. Or if it did.

He said that the IOC's policy not to retest prevents anyone from knowing whether a false positive was reported in the first place. He also doesn't know whether his client's drink bottle might have been sabotaged by someone actually targeting Brooke Bennett, the Florida teen-ager who was honored as the top U.S. female swimmer last year.

"She had the same bag as Brooke Bennett, and she was sitting right next to Brooke before the race," said Levinstein.

U.S. Swimming officials deny any correlation between the cases of Foschi and Riley, but Levinstein believes otherwise. He also says that if Riley had been an up-and-comer like Foschi, rather than a world-record holder, "she would have gotten hammered the way Jessica did."

Or if his client had been Riley's equivalent in the United States -- say someone like Bennett or Janet Evans -- he believes Foschi, too, would have been given the benefit of the doubt.

U.S. Swimming president Carol Zaleski is adamant that both decisions were just.

According to FINA, there is an automatic two-year ban for using either anabolic steroids, which Foschi was found to have done, or analgesic narcotics, which Riley used at the suggestion of her coach.

"The confusion around the Riley situation certainly muddies the water," said Zaleski. "What we're saying is that the FINA rules were inconsistently applied."

Some say that U.S. Swimming's interpretations were equally inconsistent, bent to fit a plan aimed at eliminating a key member of a burgeoning power -- an Australian women's team that bested the United States during last summer's Pan Pacific Championships in Atlanta.

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