- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

You are supposed to care about swimming right now.

The U.S. Olympic swimming trials are under way in Indianapolis, and the Sydney Games are next month and this is the time, once every four years, when you are obligated to embrace Johnny Weismuller's sport.

Weismuller was the best Tarzan, by the way, and he achieved his aquatic fame in a less sophisticated time, before the glut of substances that promise quicker and greater results, if not a shot at your own talk show, sitcom, book deal and the cover of the Wheaties box.

Swimming has lost its innocence and honor since the days of Weismuller, and seeing is not always believing, if you care to recall the old East German women in 1976 and the Chinese women in 1992.

You don't trust the sport.

You don't know who's clean and who's dirty, or even if there is such a distinction, because perhaps the so-called clean competitors are beating the system, masking their use of performance-enhancing substances.

Michelle Smith beat the system at the Atlanta Games in 1996, claiming three gold medals. She was the toast of Ireland and the source of a whisper campaign. Her excellence couldn't be, her rivals said, and eventually, two years after Atlanta, the suspicions were shown to be correct, and she drew a four-year suspension.

Here's what you know about swimmers: Most of them have asthma. You don't know why that is. You are not a physician or a chemist. You just know that whenever you see a world-class swimmer, you can be fairly certain the swimmer is packing an asthma inhaler. Swimmers apparently are the most cursed group in the world. Become a swimmer. Develop asthma. It must be the water.

The sport is infected with doubt, questions, and one of the questions concerns the size 17 feet of Aussie swimmer Ian Thorpe. Are his flippers natural or the product of a human growth hormone?

People dine on rat to be on an eminently forgettable television show, and you are left to imagine what they might do to reach Olympic glory.

Swimming is turning on itself from the inside. The competitors are the ones leading the inquisition, getting worked up by the Chinese women who don't look or act their gender.

Yet swimming is only one of the untrustworthy competitions featured at the Olympics.

Michael Johnson must travel to Europe to make a living in his sport, partly because the sport never has been properly marketed in America and partly because the sport is corrupt.

You know a sport has lost its essence if the rationalization is, "Well, they all do it."

So why not, in addition to the chemistry-perfected bodies, allow the runners to be equipped with rocket-fueled shoes?

The taint, fair or not, hangs over all the competitors.

They implied the worst about the late Florence Griffith Joyner at the Seoul Games in 1988 following her stunning physical transformation in the four years after Los Angeles.

Her thighs were seemingly as muscular as Ben Johnson's, and her makeup, which looked so stylish on television, appeared in person to have been applied with a paintbrush.

Griffith Joyner retired from running after the Seoul Games, although she was at the peak of her physical powers, and Johnson came to embody all that was wrong with the sport.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong, who will be in Sydney pursuing his first gold medal, has become one of America's media darlings after beating cancer and winning the Tour de France the last two years.

His sport is hopelessly dishonest, too, but somehow, because Armstrong's tale is inspiring, you are supposed to overlook this inconvenient detail. You are supposed to be indifferent to the news from France's anti-doping council that 45 percent of its 96 tests on the 180-rider field last month came back positive for doping substances.

Be careful with your conclusions.

The cyclists, despite their remarkable physical condition, could have medical problems that necessitated the substances found in their bodies.

That is a good one.

Believe what you want to believe.

That is how it goes with too many of the Olympic competitions. Fortunately, most of the competitions don't resonate with the masses, and this glorified pharmaceutical convention comes around only once every four years.

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