USADA … please bring out thy sacrificial lamb

As the “Greatest Celebration in Humanity” wrapped up, signifying the closing of the 2004 Olympic Games, Greek officials were no doubt breathing a collective sigh of relief that the Summer Games went off without the security meltdown that safety experts such as Tracy McGrady and Shaquille O’Neal foresaw. However, on the other side of the pond, officials over at the USATF and USADA were worried about the legitimacy of their athletes.

As the women toed the line for the 100-meter, it would not have been surprising to see glances cast at the Americans much like those directed at the East Germans years ago. U.S. 100-meter runner, Torri Edwards, was banned from competing in the Athens Games and faces a two-year ban after traces of the drug nikethamide were found in a drug test issued at an April meet in Martinique.

To further clarify, nikethamide is no tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). THG is a steroid that chemically is closely modeled after two synthetic (and already USADA-banned) anabolic steroids, gestrinone and trenbolone. Nikethamide is a stimulant with effects similar to those in caffeine — albeit nikethamide is of course just a bit stronger to say the least. However, Edwards was not being secretly injected with the drug in back rooms, nor was she taking nikethamide with the knowledge that it would make her unduly faster or stronger than her competition. As a matter of fact, Edwards was unaware that she was doping. One suspension and a failed appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) later, Edwards found herself losing her spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team to none other than 100-meter hurdle gold medalist Gail Devers — not to mention a two-year ban from a sport in which the 27 year-old non-doper was peaking.

Speaking of peaks, it is somewhat ironic that it would be Devers to take Edwards’ spot since Devers, at 37 years old, was performing at a level much higher than would ordinarily be expected. When you consider that in the track world by and large sprinters tend to peak before the age of 30 because their fast-twitch muscles can only last them for so many years.

Of course Devers hasn’t tested positive for any banned substances. But then again, the 39 year-old middle distance queen Regina Jacobs who was recently tested positive for THG and was subsequently banned from the sport, got away with it for years as tests to detect THG were designed only recently. It’s unfortunate that someone with the achievements of Devers, in spite of all the adversity she faced years earlier with illness, must be looked at through such a cynical lens. But given the facts, it is far more reasonable to believe that she’s using a yet untested drug than running on her own natural steam.

Devers almost decided to yield her spot to the defending Olympic champion Marion Jones, who only finished fifth at the Olympic trials. Ironically, USATF sweetheart Marion Jones was also one of the many athletes to be connected with the now infamous supplier of “high-tech nutrition,” BALCO. Jones came under USADA suspicion after a check for $7,350 was written from Jones’ account to BALCO owner, Victor Conte. While it came out that her ex-husband and banned-for-doping shot-putter, C.J. Hunter, had written the check, he alleged he indeed had written the check but it was on behalf of his wife; sweet of him to pick up her “meds”.

All BALCO entanglements aside, I remember my as yet non-desensitized eyes watching the Sydney Olympics and remarking about how much larger Jones looked than the rest of her competition. Oblivious to the whole doping fiasco, I tried to come up with excuses. First of all, Jones has always been taller and stronger than many others when she was a starting point guard on UNC’s 1995 NCAA Championship team. Besides, she was also wearing a speed suit, which didn’t do her any favors in terms of slimming her muscular build, right?

Fast forward four years later and the same Jones who left Sydney with three gold medals only qualified for the Athens games in one event — the long jump, an event she took home the bronze in. Clearly it was not the same Jones at the 2004 Olympic Trials, nor was she in top form at the Olympics where she finished a disappointing fifth in the long jump this year.

What’s most disturbing and telling about Jones’ case was the defense she used back in May when suspicions of her training methods were first made public. Jones and her attorney, Joseph Burton, took the stance that Jones was innocent because she’d never tested positive nor had she taken a banned substance. Her agent, Jos Hermens, was quoted in an article in the USA Today as saying “[Jones] has a point, ‘Hey, I was never positive tested.'” USADA CEO, Terry Madden, correctly countered, “[Jones’] negative reports would not have included, for example, the presence of Norbolethone, THG, EPO, growth hormone or insulin.” A la the Jacobs method: take something that’s as of yet undetectable or that has not yet been banned because it is not yet known about. It doesn’t help Jones’ case that Conte affirms BALCO supplied Jones with banned substances; it doesn’t help the USATF or Jones’ country that with all of these acute allegations, she still competed in Athens and would have willingly taken Edwards’ spot.

Making examples of people, especially during this trying time for a sport I love, is absolutely necessary. I fully agree with shot-putter Adam Nelson when he said, “No doubt their decisions are going to be controversial. If you have nothing to fear, it’s not going to bother you one bit.” Yes, Adam, I absolutely agree that a clean athlete should have nothing to fear — except a bone-headed trainer. It’s clear Edwards could have been smarter, could have been warier, but in an Olympics where the question posed to Greek officials was how much personal privacy we were willing to sacrifice in exchange for security, the USATF and USADA are also faced with a similar dilemma. Is it right to sacrifice an honest athlete like Edwards in turn giving the tainted Devers such a prestigious opportunity so that cheaters such as Jacobs get their full due?

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