The Olympic bribery scandal has reached the piling-on stage, with various ethics committees, politicians and bureaucrats competing to voice their outrage louder than anyone else. It's getting redundant, but it's still all well and good. The International Olympic Committee has been exposed for what is, an utter disgrace. Let the chorus ring.
But while the scandal involving sites, bids and bribes makes headlines around the world and threatens the well-being of the Games' bottom line, going virtually unnoticed is another scandal that, in the end, could prove more threatening to the Olympics' integrity.
The use of blood-doping and performing-enhancing drugs among athletes is already damaging the credibility of numerous sports with Olympic ties, and the potential for disaster exists if the IOC continues to find ways not to address the problem.
The situation has received little attention outside of a cover story in Newsweek several weeks ago, but the problem is real, insidious and growing.
At the root is an artificial hormone called erythropoietin, or EPO, which quickens the absorption of oxygen into the bloodstream and thus boosts endurance. Blood-doping, as the practice of taking EPO is known, was the cause of a scandal that almost brought down the Tour de France last summer, and tennis star Jim Courier recently suggested that numerous tennis players also were doing it. That was after Czech tennis star Petr Korda had tested positive for steroids.
You get the feeling there's a lot going on that we don't know about. In a lot of sports.
All international events are threatened, but the Olympics have the most to lose. Athletes in such sports as track and field, speed skating, cycling and cross country skiing -- any sport requiring endurance, really -- could gain advantages and taint otherwise fair competitions.
Such dishonesty has been going on for years in various forms, of course. That's no secret. But the difference now is that no reliable test for EPO has been developed, so the risk is smaller. It's almost a lock that some Olympic athletes already have gotten away with "doping" their blood.
The threat to the Olympic movement is so great that organizers of the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, announced this week that they were going to try to develop an EPO test and were seeking volunteers to take part in a study. Good luck.
They certainly can't look to the IOC for help. Why? For starters, the IOC has another little matter on its docket right now. Widespread reform of the IOC's ways and means is bound to come out of the bribery scandal, which took another turn yesterday when the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee asked President Clinton to help clean up the mess. As if that's what's needed, the input of another administration tarred by scandal.
But the IOC isn't going to dig deep into a drug scandal anyway, because it never digs deep into drug scandals.
"The IOC has known about the drug epidemic in sport for the past 40 years, and has covered it up," epidemiologist Charles Yesalis of Penn State University told Newsweek. "There is no difference between the bribery scandal and the drug epidemic in the Olympics."
Oh, sure, the IOC has reasonable policies regarding many drugs and looks responsible when it strips athletes such as Ben Johnson of their medals for flunking drug tests, but the IOC's overall approach to drugs is famously lax. It never caught any of the East German swimmers who were all but floating in steroids. And the world swimming federation, not the IOC, caught a group of Chinese swimmers more recently.
The IOC convenes panels, sponsors studies and talks noise, but in the end, it does little to change a status quo that, let's face it, was enormously beneficial to its members before the bribery scandal erupted. Why do anything to tarnish the Olympics when you're living high on bribes?
At the IOC's World Conference on Doping in Sport in January, the leaders of worldwide sports federations couldn't even agree on how to address the EPO problem, leaving any chance of progress in tatters. And the federations so distrusted the IOC's motives and standards that they refused to put the IOC in charge of policing EPO.
But a lack of attention now is a prelude to possible disaster later, perhaps as soon as Sydney. The Olympics can survive a disgraceful scandal involving bureaucrats and payola, but it can't survive a loss of the public's faith in fair competition.
In the end, that's what the Olympics still are to the vast majority of the public -- a festival of competition, a sporting event. Any taint, any buckling of the public's trust, could undermine the Games' integrity far worse than a scandal involving site bids and faceless IOC members.
But adding EPO to problems that already exist with amphetamines, steroids and narcotics leaves the Olympic movement on the precipice of a major loss of the public's faith. Who wants to watch a sporting event when you can't trust the outcome?
Unless someone somewhere addresses the problem soon, the Olympics could face an even greater embarrassment than the bribery scandal. And that's saying something.
Pub Date: 3/04/99