U.S. has lost its dope-free image of old

Exposing sports cheaters is key to cleaner contests and more respect overseas

October 06, 2007|By Childs Walker and Jeff Barker | Childs Walker and Jeff Barker,Sun reporters

East German female swimmers with impossibly broad shoulders. European cyclists who roared over the Pyrenees without ever seeming to tire. A Canadian sprinter whose thighs looked as big as a normal man's torso.

Twenty years ago, our images of sports dopers dwelled on foreign competitors snatching titles and medals from U.S. athletes believed to be clean. It made for an easy hero-villain dichotomy.

But with Marion Jones' admission yesterday that she lied in denying steroid use before the 2000 Olympics, the old story line was driven deeper into the past, and another prominent American athlete was implicated in the drug scandals sweeping sports.

Jones, who could lose her three gold medals and two bronze medals from 2000, was perhaps the greatest female sprinter the country had ever produced. Cyclist Floyd Landis recently lost a doping appeal and will likely forfeit his 2006 Tour de France title. New home-run king Barry Bonds reportedly told a grand jury he unknowingly used the same substances Jones admitted receiving from San Francisco's BALCO lab.

With these and other examples, is it fair to wonder whether U.S. athletes are not only equal-opportunity dopers but leaders of an unsavory pack?

"The rewards are great all over the world, but in the U.S., I think we've attached such tremendous monetary awards to athletic success that we have become a driving force in the development of drugs," said Dr. Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon psychologist who wrote a book about state-sponsored doping in East Germany.

Ungerleider said he would not call the U.S. a doping leader because the government has never staged a concerted effort to develop unclean athletes.

"But I think there was this perception in the 1970s and 1980s that the U.S. athletes were relatively clean and played by the rules and worked out religiously," Ungerleider said. "And there was this accusatory finger pointed toward the East. That perception has been shattered."

He recalled an interview with an East German doctor in the early 1990s: "He was happy to tell his story, but he said, `Someday you will see we're not the only ones. You have skeletons in your closet too.' It struck me as sort of an eerie prediction at the time, but he was absolutely right."

Athletes recognize the changed dynamic as well.

"I would say that obviously, during the Cold War era, we would never have thought the U.S. was the number-one drug cheater," said John Godina, 35, a two-time Olympic medalist in shot put.

Now, he said, there is more reason for concern. But Godina takes solace in the country's pursuit and punishment of cheaters.

"It's bad to have people cheating," he said. "But would it be better to have a nation burying its head in the sand or trying to nail people and getting them? I'd rather be trying to clean things up and putting a scarlet `S' on the cheaters."

Worldwide skepticism about U.S. anti-doping efforts has actually decreased in recent years, said Dr. Gary Wadler, a professor at New York University and member of the committee that determines banned substances for the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Wadler said observers from other countries wonder why U.S. professional leagues do not adopt Olympic standards for banned substances and punishment but are impressed by recent law enforcement crackdowns and by the attention Congress and President Bush have given to doping.

"I think the world sees that the U.S. has, at every level, become more serious about this issue," Wadler said. He said he has no way of knowing whether doping is more prevalent in the U.S. than in other countries.

Doping historians say there's little question that state-sponsored doping programs - most notably in East Germany but also in the Soviet Union, Romania and Bulgaria - fueled the rise of performance-enhancers.

Nationalism was a much greater motivator in the 1960s and 1970s. An East German might earn a meeting with the president and a nicer family home for winning the gold medal, but the material rewards were relatively small.

That model was replaced in the 1980s and 1990s as Olympic and pro success translated into millions of dollars for athletes in the U.S. and around the world.

Godina said American athletes - cheaters and non-cheaters alike - operate more independently than their counterparts in many countries.

"In the U.S., everything like training is so non-centralized," he said. "They probably can't conceive of that in other countries. They might perceive us as a cheating country, but it's really a bunch of individuals."

The truth now, doping experts say, is that athletes across all sports and nationalities are tempted to use drugs. That has led to a more market-based model, in which labs such as BALCO and Signature Pharmacy in Orlando, Fla., spring up to profit from customers from different sports and different nations.

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