McCain stands by decision on doping

Steroids: Sen. John McCain says turning over critical evidence on U.S. athletes to steroid abuse watchdogs was needed to avert an Olympic scandal.


July 01, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Better known for his military service, running for president, and campaign finance reform, Sen. John McCain made a fateful decision in April to turn over critical evidence on U.S. Olympic athletes to steroid abuse watchdogs.

Two months later, the Arizona Republican says in an interview that he is saddened at the number of athletes who - partly as a result of documents his committee made available - are facing the possibility of lifetime bans from the U.S Anti-Doping Agency.

But he also defends the decision, saying the nation needed to get in front of sports doping among elite athletes or risk an Olympic scandal that could have damaged America's international reputation at a sensitive time and jeopardized New York City's bid to host the 2012 Summer Games.

"I think it's very obvious that after the games some athletes would have been deprived of their medals and there would have been another scandal, which we as Americans do not need," the senator said yesterday. "The image of the United States in general and New York in particular would have been affected."

New York will learn next year whether it will be selected from a field that includes London, Paris, Moscow and Madrid.

Some commentators and athletes' attorneys have questioned whether it compromised investigative protocol for McCain's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to subpoena the documents from a federal investigation of BALCO, a northern California company at the center of an alleged conspiracy to distribute steroids to dozens of track athletes and professional baseball and football players.

After it received the thousands of documents, the committee turned them over to USADA, the steroid abuse watchdog for U.S. Olympic athletes.

"We consulted with the legal counsel of the United States Senate and they assured us it was perfectly legal," McCain said.

Olympic sprint champion Marion Jones has called USADA "a kangaroo court," and 100-meter record holder Tim Montgomery's attorney has accused the agency of resorting to "McCarthy-like tactics."

No athletes have been indicted. But four track and field stars - Montgomery and fellow sprinters Chryste Gaines, Michelle Collins and Alvin Harrison - have received letters from the anti-doping Agency saying that they could face lifetime bans for using illegal drugs. None of the athletes are known to have failed a drug test, and the evidence against them is said by attorneys to include such things as drug-use schedules, e-mails and checks.

The United States must submit its Olympic team roster by July 21.

McCain's committee had been following the BALCO investigation since last year. When BALCO's operator was criminally charged in February, committee members noticed that the indictment appeared to implicate a number of unnamed athletes who had allegedly been BALCO customers. As a result, McCain and other members became concerned that the U.S. could end up sending a tainted team to Athens.

The U.S. Olympic Committee and USADA backed the decision to get the criminal investigation records into USADA's hands.

"The Olympic Committee and USADA made a strong and convincing case that it's better to get this issue behind us before the Olympics," McCain said. "It's sad to see some of these athletes who are so superb and have succumbed to the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs."

The subpoena did not include requests for protected records, such as transcripts of grand jury testimony.

Among those who testified before the grand jury last year were slugger Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield.

McCain said yesterday that the committee has no plans to subpoena BALCO records relating to baseball players and turn them over to Major League Baseball's headquarters in New York City.

With the Summer Games beginning on Aug. 13, "there was a time urgency associated with the Olympic athletes" that doesn't exist with baseball, McCain said.

Still, McCain has tried to prod baseball into improving its drug testing program. Critics say the program is flawed because the penalties are too lenient - a first offense requires only treatment - and because it doesn't run year-round. For example, this year's testing began on March 2.

McCain's committee held a March hearing and warned baseball to get tougher. Since then, baseball and its players' union have opened negotiations on revamping drug testing, even though their collective bargaining agreement doesn't expire until the end of the 2006 season.

Says McCain: "I think they realize that this issue has to be addressed, and if our committee hearing was helpful, then I'm pleased about that."

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