Reflecting ON BEIJING

Drug-free zone? Just say 'No'

August 24, 2008|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

BEIJING - Four years ago in Athens, 26 Olympians tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, which most agree was only a fraction of those who had artificial help gushing through their bloodstream.

This weekend in China, Ukrainian weightlifter Igor Razoronov submitted a dirty test. He was just the sixth athlete busted at these Summer Games, representing quite a falloff from the 2004 total.

There really aren't a whole lot of conclusions for us to draw here. The athletes have either been scared clean, or they've stayed ahead of the drug testers.

Think what you want, but with more than 10,000 athletes competing in the Olympics this time around, if you think only a half-dozen have blood that matches Beijing's air quality, well, I suspect the International Olympic Committee might have a public relations job for you.

Despite the drop in positive tests, we've actually seen a fair number of superhuman performances, athletes who are rewriting the Olympic record books like Quentin Tarantino taking a crack at remaking Little House on the Prairie.

In this space Thursday, I cast skepticism on Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's incredible feats at these Olympics - shattering the world records in the 100 and 200 meters. Not surprisingly, there were some who disagreed, who want to believe that Bolt earned that record through hard work, powerful homegrown yams and his pre-race Chicken McNuggets. Admittedly, I would love to believe that, too. Unfortunately, I just can't.

Yet, there was one other unbelievable performance at these Games. Years from now, we'll look back at 2008 in Beijing and two things will stand out: Bolt's lightning speed around the Bird's Nest track and Michael Phelps assuming superhero powers in the Water Cube pool.

In eight events, Phelps set seven world records, several by ridiculously large margins. In winning eight gold medals, he did something no one had ever done before. So why does Phelps receive the benefit of the doubt but not Bolt? It's a fair question.

Put simply, Phelps growth curve is a bit different and the testing standards for his home nation are significantly different.

Bolt entered these Games as a curiosity, while Phelps had long ago established himself as swimming's version of a bull in a world-record shop.

Phelps was an age-group champion since the time he learned to hold his breath underwater. When he was 11 years old, his coach, Bob Bowman, was already convinced he would someday be an Olympic champion. In 2000, Phelps was the youngest male Olympian since 1932. A year later, he became the youngest swimmer to break a world record. His path was always pointed to a historic performance like we saw this month in Beijing.

This isn't to suggest that Bolt wasn't also a rising star. (In fact, at 16 he was the youngest world champion ever.) But their respective paths were different. For most of his competitive life, when Phelps hasn't been performing in the swimming pool, he was performing for doping officials behind closed doors.

"I've been tested after every final session and a few preliminary sessions. I've been doing tests since I got here, and in Singapore and at the training camp in Palo Alto [Calif.]," he said last week. "From the trials to now, I'd say by a rough estimate there's been 40 tests. That's a bunch. But it's part of the game and good for the sport to have it."

For the sake of accuracy, Bolt has also faced plenty of tests. After winning his third gold medal of these Games, here's what he said: "I've been tested so many times in the competition, I've lost count. We know we're good. We know we're clean. We work hard, and anytime you want to test us, it's OK."

Here's the difference: The United States has a much more stringent testing program. Jamaica doesn't even have an accredited anti-doping system. The only times many athletes there - and in many other countries - are tested is when they're in actual competition.

So any urine samples these past couple of weeks in Beijing - and not just in track - are virtually meaningless.

Not helping matters, four of the past five men's 100-meter gold medalists have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. By comparison, the sport of swimming has the steroid stain of a preschool.

"Anybody is able to say whatever they want," Phelps said during his chase for eight. "I know for me, I am clean. I did Project Believe with USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency], where I purposely wanted to do more tests to prove it. People can question it all they want, but the facts are the facts. And I have the results to prove it."

To be fair, Project Believe isn't foolproof either. But that serves more as a reflection on the state of sports than on Phelps. Project Believe is a testing program in which certain athletes volunteer for additional - nonmandated - testing. It covers 12 athletes, including Phelps, Dara Torres and Tyson Gay.

As much as you might want to believe in Project Believe, when it comes to drug testing, you just never know.

"I want to be absolutely clear ... we can't guarantee their cleanliness," Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA, told Yahoo Sports.

The current drug-testing program busted only six athletes at these Games. To put that into perspective, four horses competing in equestrian show-jumping were found to be dirty.

In all, more than 5,000 drug tests will be conducted at this summer's Olympics. Catching only a handful doesn't tell me that the Games are suddenly clean. Unfortunately, it likely confirms our fears: The athletes are still light-years ahead of the drug testers.

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