Athletics: US drugs crisis set to eclipse Olympic build-up

As the Games approach, athletics is caught in the Balco doping scandal. By <i>Rupert Cornwell </i>in Washington
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The Independent Online

Not since the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds has a sporting event in this part of the world been under such a cloud as the US Olympic track and field trials which open in Sacramento, California, on Friday.

Not since the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds has a sporting event in this part of the world been under such a cloud as the US Olympic track and field trials which open in Sacramento, California, on Friday.

Then it was the stench of gambling money which pointed to the great baseball fix in the offing. Now, odourless and, until lately, traceless steroids are the culprit, polluting an event that should provide thrills and quality second only to the Games themselves, which start in Athens in just six weeks time.

More than a year has passed since an anonymous and disgruntled athletics coach sent a syringe to the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada), containing a sample of the now infamous and previously undetectable designer steroid Tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG.

It was allegedly produced by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (Balco), a then obscure San Francisco bay area company specialising in nutritional supplements and run by a former track athlete, Victor Conte.

In the months since, the Balco affair has ballooned into a drugs scandal that rivals, and possibly exceeds, anything yet seen in sport - be it the systematic doping of former Eastern Bloc athletes, the allegations that cloud professional road cycling, or even the Ben Johnson affair of 1988, which saw the Seoul 100 metres champion stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroid use.

Balco quickly claimed several victims. The British sprint champion Dwain Chambers failed a test for THG and has been banned for two years. Similar punishment was meted out here in May to Kelli White, the double 2003 world sprint champion. But the net may stretch far wider.

A host of star clients of Balco, among them the baseball home run king Barry Bonds, the multiple world champion boxer Shane Mosley and Marion Jones, winner of five track and field medals at the 2000 Games in Sydney, paraded before the federal grand jury investigating the affair.

That investigation in turn led to the February 2004 indictment of Conte, along with Balco's vice-president and two top coaches, all of them charged with running an illegal drug distribution operation, and supplying banned substances to "dozens" of leading sports performers. No names were made public. But they surely will be when the trial of the four men starts later this year.

But other bombshells are already exploding. On 23 June, Usada announced it was seeking life bans against four top US athletes, including Tim Montgomery, the current world 100m record holder and the gold medal favourite in Athens, and Michelle Collins, an indoor sprint champion also likely to make the US Olympic team. Neither has ever failed a drugs test. Usada, however, says it will seek the bans on the basis of circumstantial evidence gathered in the course of the Balco probe.

Arguably, athletics is the least of the US sports sullied by the growing scandal. Several players from the Oakland Raiders of the National Football League, all clients of Balco, have tested positive for THG - only strengthening the suspicion that steroid use is rife in the NFL, despite the league's strict drugs regime. Then there is the baseball connection.

The two players implicated in the affair, Bonds and the former Oakland Athletics slugger Jason Giambi, have both played for teams in the San Francisco area and both are Balco customers. Indeed, Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson was one of the four men indicted in February.

Bonds, who holds the single season record with 73 home runs and is third on the all-time list behind Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, has flatly denied the charges. By common consent, he is the most gifted player of his generation - but even that does not entirely explain the astonishing late blossoming of his career. He set his record in 2001 when he was already 36, and has continued in the same vein since.

Thanks to Balco, baseball finally introduced regular mandatory drugs testing this season - but too late to prevent the suspicion that the sport's most glamorous record, as well as the more general surge in home run hitting over the last decade, may have been artificially fuelled. The brightest spotlight, however, is on track and field athletics, in that brief spell every four years when the sport impinges on the American consciousness.

And as witches' brews go, the current mix of confusion, leaks, innuendo and half-substantiated allegations is about as poisonous as they come.

Who precisely will be competing in Sacramento is not clear, and their state of mind can only be guessed at. Meanwhile what happens to Tim Montgomery? Will he take part in Athens? What is the status of his world record of 9.78 seconds, set in Paris in September 2002? Then there are the leaks. Montgomery, as noted above, has never failed a drugs test. But for the independent and fiercely assertive Usada, a so-called "non-analytical positive" may be enough to finish his career.

Much of the information has not been made public, appearing only in leaks of grand jury testimony published in Los Angeles and San Francisco newspapers. Some of that testimony should be taken with a pinch of salt, given the seedy workings of the US plea bargain system. According to Montgomery's lawyers, much of the evidence against their man comes from Conte, who had a bitter quarrel with the sprinter and has now offered to testify against various athletes in order to avoid being sent to jail himself.

Not surprisingly, the athletes say Usada has run amok, and that they are being denied the basic presumption of innocence central to the American legal system. The anti-doping agency "is using McCarthy-like tactics to ruin Tim's reputation," argues Howard Jacobs, Montgomery's lawyer, referring to the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. More surprisingly, some of America's hardest-nosed sports writers, with few illusions about drug abuse in sport, complain that the athletes are being treated unfairly.

No case is more poignant, or more ambiguous, than that of the hugely popular Marion Jones - accused of nothing but perhaps irreparably tarred by her associations. Jones, the darling of the Sydney Games, points out that she has passed 160 drugs tests in her career, and understandably complains of being the victim of a "kangaroo court". Nonetheless it would be astounding if she were not in the eye of the storm.

Her current partner is Montgomery (the couple have a one-year-old child), while her former husband was the shotputter C J Hunter, who quit the sport in 2000 after failing four drugs tests. Last but not least, both she and Montgomery worked briefly with Charlie Francis, the coach who supplied Johnson with steroids almost two decades ago.

This should be the moment when pre-Olympic excitement starts to build among athletes and public alike. But these days the expectation is less of new records, but that another shoe may be about to drop in the Balco affair.

As Jones put it during an emotional press conference in San Francisco last month: "I am fighting to preserve my reputation, something that is priceless. There are other Olympic Games, but I only have one reputation." The whole of US track and field might have been speaking with her.

Six key figures in the Balco scandal

VICTOR CONTE

The owner of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, a self-styled nutrition centre in San Francisco which has been at the centre of the recent federal investigation into tax evasion and doping issues. He is one of four people indicted on charges of distributing banned drugs and is petitioning the US president for a plea bargain to avoid custodial sentence.

TIM MONTGOMERY

The world 100 metres record holder and partner of Marion Jones, Montgomery faces a life ban for doping offences through information passed on from federal sources to the US Anti-Doping Agency. In leaked reports of his testimony at last year's federal grand jury into Balco, he admits taking numerous banned drugs, including human growth hormone.

DWAIN CHAMBERS

The British sprinter was banned for two years in February after testing positive for Tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, the previously undetectable steroid which was allegedly developed by Conte at his lab and known unofficially as 'clear'. Chambers' Ukrainian coach, Remy Korchemny, is charged along with Conte with distributing illegal steroids.

MARION JONES

Unlike her partner, Montgomery, she has not been charged with a specific doping offence. But circumstantial evidence continues to prove awkward, particularly following the charges against her partner and father of her one-year-old son, Tim Jnr. Described recently as 'stupid' by IOC president Jacques Rogge for associating with a succession of men tarnished by doping issues. Rumoured to have been mentioned in Conte's evidence.

KELLI WHITE

She is the US winner of the 100 and 200 metres at last year's World Championships. She was initially charged with taking the banned stimulant modafinil and subsequently accepted a two-year ban for wider-ranging doping abuses this month after being shown incriminating documents released by federal agents investigating Balco. She also agreed to act as state witness and has been angrily denounced by Montgomery.

REGINA JACOBS

Jacobs is facing a two-year ban following a positive test for THG and is currently challenging Usada's arbitration process in the US civil courts, claiming that it is unfairly restricted. Her plea has already been turned down by one court. Jacobs surprised many involved in athletics in 2003 by becoming the first woman to break four minutes for the indoor 1500 metres, at the age of 39.

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