- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

LONDON — Cycling’s newest champion. The Olympic men’s 100-meter gold medalist. Baseball’s record-setting slugger. What these American stars have in common is nothing to cheer about — they’re all under the cloud of doping.

For years, the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs gradually has chipped away at the image and credibility of the sports world and the celebrity athletes it produces.

Yet perhaps nothing compares in shock value with the news in the past few days that Tour de France champion Floyd Landis and Olympic and world 100 champion Justin Gatlin tested positive for banned substances.

While neither has been found guilty and both deny cheating, the double blow of the accusations is devastating. Barry Bonds, meanwhile, remains the target of a grand jury investigation into reported steroid use.

There’s a sense now that no matter how hard administrators, drug-testers and anti-doping bodies fight it, the doping crisis is undermining any legitimacy that sports still holds.

“We have reached a tipping point in the fight against doping in sport,” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth said in a statement. “The cold reality is this: We are not yet winning the battle, and if we are ultimately to succeed, we must become smarter, more efficient and more effective in our efforts. The status quo will not work.”

Indeed, seeing is no longer believing. A great cycling performance on the road? A world record on the track? A super fast time in the pool? All are immediately greeted by cynicism and suspicion. Must be too good to be true.

Even a clean drug test isn’t enough to dispel the doubts. The cheaters still can beat the tests, and some doping substances can’t be detected.

These days, results and medals tables at the Olympics or various world championships might as well have an asterisk next to them — pending the doping analyses and disciplinary procedures and appeals. Medals are sometimes stripped and new winners declared months, even years, later.

Landis, Gatlin and Bonds are all in a sort of doping limbo.

Landis is contesting the higher-than-allowable testosterone reading found in his urine sample after his amazing stage 17 ride — widely considered one of the greatest performances in Tour de France history.

Landis has asked for a “B” sample test and insists the positive result is because of his body’s natural metabolism. If the second test is negative, he will be cleared. If found guilty, he would be stripped of his Tour title and face a two-year ban. What shaped up as the feel-good sports story of the summer could wind up as the most disheartening tale of all.

Doping in cycling is hardly surprising. The 1998 Tour was nearly brought down by the Festina scandal, several top riders were barred this year after being implicated in a Spanish investigation, 2004 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton is serving a two-year ban and seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong has been dogged by doping accusations.

While the Landis case has garnered massive headlines, Gatlin’s positive test — also for testosterone — is perhaps even more significant.

Here is a sprinter who has been at the top of his game for two years, winning the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the world title in 2005 and holding a share of the world record of 9.77 seconds with Jamaica’s Asafa Powell since May.

“I cannot account for these results, because I have never knowingly used any banned substance or authorized anyone else to administer such a substance to me,” Gatlin said Saturday, announcing the positive result from a relay race in Kansas in April.

Gatlin had spoken out against drugs and seemed the right man to elevate a sport reeling from doping cases, from the Ben Johnson shame in 1988 to the BALCO investigation that busted former 100 world-record holder Tim Montgomery and put five-time Olympic medalist Marion Jones under scrutiny.

“Although difficult, his case demonstrates that in track and field and Olympic sports, it doesn’t matter who you are,” USATF chief Craig Masback said of Gatlin. “If you test positive for a banned substance, you will face substantial consequences. We hope Justin has not committed a doping offense, and we await the completion of the adjudication process.”

Gatlin would lose the world record and get a lifetime ban if convicted. He served a previous one-year suspension after testing positive in college for a banned substance found in medication he was taking for attention deficit disorder.

Bonds, who surpassed Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs this season to move into second on the all-time list, has been implicated in the BALCO investigation. Authorities are investigating whether he lied under oath when he told a grand jury he didn’t know whether substances given to him by his personal trainer were steroids.

Yes, there is a positive side to all this. The drug testers and agencies are catching (at least some of) the violators, punishing the guilty and trying to clean up the sports.

The down side is it shows that, despite the warnings and deterrents, athletes at the highest level are still willing to risk their careers, their health and their reputations by taking a pill, an injection or a blood transfusion.

And for every athlete caught, another is surely getting away with it. The playing field isn’t level, and clean athletes are losing out.

“Doping in sport is a cancer,” Ueberroth said. “It undermines the credibility of what we see. It compromises the health and well-being of those who compete. It unfairly tilts the playing field in favor of those who cheat. And it tears at the fabric of what makes sport unique and important to our society.”

Sport is like society at large, and there will always be bad apples and cheaters. It’s just that the stakes are different. What do parents tell kids about the idols they watch and try to emulate?

Right now, that message might be: cover your eyes.

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