Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Un-levelling the Playing Field

A comment on the USOC doping scandal

The recent disclosure of documents proving that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) systematically exonerated scores of athletes guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs has brought into question the moral authority of a national Olympic committee that has always positioned itself as a leader in the fight against doping in sport.

The facts, unfortunately, are all too clear. Much of the media attention has focused on one of the American superstars, Carl Lewis, although he is by no means the only athlete involved. He was, however, the most well-known and is noteworthy for his vocal opposition to drug use and his self-proclaimed personal standard of competing “clean.”

In what now appears to be one of life’s particular ironies, Lewis was awarded the gold medal in the 100 m sprint at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, after Canada’s Ben Johnson tested positive for anabolic steroid use and was disqualified from the event. This is no apologia for Johnson—he cheated and fully deserved to be disqualified and to forfeit his medal. Lewis, having been beaten soundly in the final, stepped into Johnson’s shoes as the new Olympic champion. Wearing that medal around his neck, Lewis publicly criticized Johnson for having resorted to drugs in order to win. Johnson was disgraced and Lewis adroitly polished his own halo.

What Lewis failed to disclose in the process was that, some two months earlier, at the US Olympic trials, he had himself tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Not once. Not twice. Three times. The drugs were banned stimulants. There was no error in the analysis of the samples he provided; in each case the initial analysis was confirmed when the second portion of the sample was analyzed. The drugs were well and truly present in his system. For someone competing in sprints and the long jump, stimulants might well have had an effect on his performance.

These were not just inadvertent uses of cold tablets or something reasonably innocent. These were so-called nutritional supplements with names like Power Surge. Carl Lewis was no fifteen-year-old Romanian gymnast given something by a reckless physician. In 1988, he already had four Olympic gold medals from the previous Summer Games in Los Angeles. He was a multiple world champion, a veteran of international competition, who was fully aware of the rules and warnings regarding performance-enhancing drugs.

The international rules are clear. Doping in sport is governed by strict liability rules. Athletes are responsible for what they ingest or inject, or permit to be ingested or injected, into their bodies. The doping offence is complete once the presence of the substance in the athlete’s system has been established, no matter how it got there. The only question then becomes what should be the sanction.

But, in all cases, the result of the event in which the doping occurred has to be nullified. Lewis should have had no results recorded and no possibility of reaching the Olympics. To the discredit of American sport, the American people and the clean athletes who were beaten by the drugged athletes—and thus did not get well-deserved places on the US Olympic team—this did not happen.

The USOC adopted a policy at complete variance with international rules. It routinely exonerated athletes with positive tests on the spurious grounds that the substances had been taken “inadvertently” and mildly warned them against doing it again. The process was so automatic that the letters were mere formalities. On one letter informing an athlete that he had tested positive, there was even a handwritten note saying the sender was obliged to send the letter, but that the athlete would be exonerated.

Whatever adjective might be applied, calling Lewis’ drug use inadvertent is little short of a joke. Even had it been a cold tablet, that would not have changed the rule. The only inadvertence is, perhaps, that he has now been caught.

The US Track and Field Federation (USATF), advised of the test results, was required to advise the international federation (the IAAF) in turn. It did not. All knowledge was confined to a small group within the USOC and the USATF.

What distorted system of values was the USOC following? How could it justify hiding positive drug tests from its own public and the athletes who competed fairly? How could it insist that everyone else follow the rules, while breaking those rules over and over?

Drug use in sport is not unlike alcoholism: until the problem is acknowledged, it is not possible to implement an effective cure. America is not the only country with a doping problem in sport. Nor is it the worst; it has never used a state-sponsored, mandatory drug program for its athletes, as did, among others, the former East Germany. There is no country and no sport that is free of the risk of drug use. The same Olympics that celebrated American excellence were a Gethsemane for Canada, with the Ben Johnson scandal. The difference between the two countries is that Canada has acknowledged the failure and become one of the leading nations fighting for drug-free sport. Even Germany, by prosecuting those responsible for former programs, has come to terms with its past.

It is now time for the US to do the same. There is little possibility of changing results from fifteen years ago, but the USOC has a duty to explain to the American people and to the Olympic world how this travesty was allowed to occur. Is America willing to countenance cheating, to celebrate tainted Olympic performance, in the name of some misguided national pride? If so, it has been masquerading under false colours. If this is not what America stands for, then the USOC should acknowledge publicly that it erred. Its people, its athletes and the world at large require nothing less.

Richard Pound is an Olympic athlete, past president of the Canadian Olympic Committee and chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency.