The strongmen can't lift a drug scandal

Friday, August 20, 2004

ATHENS, Greece -- So many weightlifters are getting busted for drugs at the Olympics, you'd think they're gulping steroid shakes at the athletes' village -- under the table, of course.

They're a United Nations of dopesters, part of a group of 21 lifters caught this year from places as diverse as Morocco, Hungary, Moldova, India, Myanmar, Armenia, Turkey, Bulgaria, China, Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Kazakhstan.

It's an equal opportunity scandal, though scandal may not apply in a sport where juicing up is the norm.

American lifters, happily absent from the list but also absent from the medal stand, are working a cynical strategy. As one coach close to the U.S. team put it, the idea is to stay clean and hope that everyone else tests positive. Tara Nott did just that in Sydney and moved up from silver to gold when Izabela Dragneva of Bulgaria flunked the drug test.

Seven lifters have been suspended at these Olympics halfway through the competition -- and those are only the ones stupid enough to get caught. They know they're going to get tested every time they turn around. Anyone with a tad higher IQ might have resorted to one of the many tricks athletes use to avoid detection.

Then again, it takes a certain amount of sophistication and cash to mask drugs completely from the men in white lab coats. It's easier for athletes from the Third World to acquire steroids than it is to hide them.

Tamas Ajan, president of the International Weightlifting Federation, looked truly pained, if hardly surprised, Thursday when he reported the latest names on the cheating list -- six for anabolic steroids to boost strength and one for a diuretic to drop weight. All, he said, had their credentials yanked, were sent packing from the village and will be barred from the next Olympics.

"We have some moment in our lives when we are smiling, laughing, enjoying life," Ajan said. "Unfortunately, many times we have some sad moments. One of my eyes is smiling because it is a very good competition. Seventy-nine countries are here. Weightlifting is a basic sport, an important (Olympic) sport since 1896. But my other eye is crying because of the positive tests."

Ajan is a short, stocky, 65-year-old Hungarian who resembles a lifter, rather than the national champion gymnast he once was. He wears a fixed frown and has deep furrows between his eyes. He looks like a worried man, and he has good reason to be.

His sport, the one he's written books about and the love of his professional life, is in jeopardy of getting tossed from the Olympics if it keeps churning out cheats.

Ajan sounded sincere, saying that as a member of the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency board he is committed to clean sports even if it means the death of his own.

Between Jan. 1 and July 30, he said, the IWF conducted 1,000 drug tests. The federation ordered all lifters to be in Athens for tests six days before the Olympics, and all of the 260 competitors who qualified for the games were subjected to random out-of-competition testing.

"You might ask, 'Why are you doing these controls? You are digging your own grave,"' he said. "Yes, this is true. But I tell you we are doing everything against the drugs and we are going to continue the fight against the drugs because we are for fair play."

He seemed to be saying that the sport was damned if tested and found cheats and damned if it didn't. In truth, the future may not be so dire.

IOC president Jacques Rogge welcomed the latest busts, praising the weightlifting federation for fighting the good fight.

Ajan said his federation spends more than 30 percent of its annual budget fighting doping.

"I would be very happy if the other sports would do the same," he said.

The biggest problem, he said, are nefarious traveling coaches who work with lifters from various countries.

"Some of the coaches, and especially some coaches who are working abroad from a certain country, they wish to produce perfect, top competitors," he said. "And these coaches have to take the responsibility if the competitor tests positive.

"I talked to the Indian Olympic Committee many times, saying, 'Don't employ some foreign coaches because time to time Indians produce positive tests. You have to stop this in the future."'

Indian lifters employ coaches from Bulgaria, Russia and Belarus. Ajan didn't name which coaches are giving their lifters drugs or say where they're from, but he warned again that athletes should use coaches they can trust from their own country.

Weightlifting is among the simplest of sports, answering the age-old question: Who is stronger than anyone else?

Yet it also is the one where steroids offer the most obvious benefit. Everyone may not be cheating, but all the positive tests mean everyone is under suspicion.

The quick way, and the wrong way, to end the corruption is to chop weightlifting out of the Olympics. That merely punishes those who compete cleanly and robs the games of defining the world's strongest men and women.

The right way to go is the way Ajan has chosen -- test and test some more until the cheating stops.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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