James Lawton: Why believers in Olympic dream make dopes of us all

It is hard to warm your hands - or your heart - on a lie, the stupendous, never-ending lie which the Olympics have become and which no amount of breath-taking ceremony and superb sports architecture can obscure.
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If you stand on the Acropolis you can see it all glinting in the fierce sunlight. And part of you understands why it is that, if the Greeks were any more proud of their £2.5bn race to show they are worthy of repossessing the Olympic gift they gave the world, they might take flight and land beside you, one by one.

If you stand on the Acropolis you can see it all glinting in the fierce sunlight. And part of you understands why it is that, if the Greeks were any more proud of their £2.5bn race to show they are worthy of repossessing the Olympic gift they gave the world, they might take flight and land beside you, one by one.

A gnarled old man with a flowing moustache welcomes you to the soil of Zeus and says you are going to enjoy the best days of your life.

He says he has never felt so much pride as he looks at the gleaming stadia which makes the once awesome Olympic stadium of 1896 look like the pygmy remnant of an old film set.

So why don't you feel his warmth? Why is it so hard to share in the joy of a people who believe so fervently they have delved into their past, at potentially ruinous cost, and found the best of themselves? It is because it is hard to warm your hands - or your heart - on a lie, the stupendous, never-ending lie which the Olympics have become and which no amount of breath-taking ceremony and superb sports architecture can obscure.

If you think that is too bleak a view, that anyone who cares about sport as a metaphor for some of the most inspiring qualities in life, has a duty to believe in the Olympics, and their capacity to one day purify themselves, where have you been the last 30 years - or, for that matter, the last 30 hours? Here, a few days before the Olympic flame shoots up towards the ancient gods, is the latest smorgasbord of drug cheats: an Irish distance runner who was suddenly carving vast chunks out of his personal best times, an American sprinter, a Swiss cyclist, a Spanish canoeist, a Kenyan boxer, and two Greek American baseball players. It is the Spanish canoeist who perhaps shocks the most.

We know about the impurities of track and field, we know that every winner crosses not only the finishing line but one of easy trust in the cleanness of his or her's triumph.

We know about cycling and its serial drug scandals. We know that baseball's greatest player, the wonderfully gifted Barry Bonds of the San Francisco giants, currently operates beneath a mountain of circumstantial evidence that he is part of the indicted Balco laboratory's empire of deceit. But a canoeist, why Jovano Gonzalez? Not for the big money of a track and field or cycling medal, we know that. For what then? Maybe to show your children, and their children, a medal that you would always know was false.

The trouble is that such questioning has long been abandoned in the culture of sports drugs. You do not dope to cheat, you do it to stay in the race, to give yourself a chance. It is the rationale that comes when you know the world of high level competition isn't suddenly going to change, isn't going to be scared off by a run of positive tests. Tomorrow there will be a new little designer number to beat any test they can devise in the yellow-painted doping centre here where yesterday an African worker was, maybe symbolically, weeding the flower beds.

While International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge insists that the cheats are on the run, that every positive test is a little victory in a big war that is being won, the head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency Terry Madden is on the record saying that undetectable drugs will be in play here over the next two weeks.

Dr Don Catlin of the University of California, who launched the Balco probe when he was sent a syringe containing a sample of the tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) designer steroid that had been sailing through the dope tests, agrees, saying, "I believe they are out there... I'm concerned that the THG story has awakened synthetic chemists."

Such emphatic views, from such impeccable quarters, only deepens the unease, the sense that when you have been around the Olympics for so long, when you have been deceived so many times, these may well be one Summer Games too many, and that they should be happening here, of all places, only deepens the feeling that we are party to an ideal all played out.

Paula Radcliffe, the heroine of English athletics, maybe should understand this as well as anybody. For years she campaigned against the plague of drugs. Now she concentrates on her own dramatically improved performance, but surely she knows that however many races she wins, however many marathons she pushes herself through, the one thing even she cannot outrun is doubt.

That is the killer, the dragging of the spirit. Four years ago in Sydney, Marion Jones was a superwoman, a case of spectacularly suspended doubt. Much tested as the world's leading woman athlete, and always found to be clean, she had long banished the questions triggered by an argument with testers as a teenager. The news that her husband, the shot putter CJ Hunter, had tested positively went off like a bomb in the early hours of the Sydney morning, compromising profoundly in the Games which had been so brilliantly, heart-warmingly staged by the Australians. All that has happened since, the claims by Hunter that he injected his former wife during those Games, the subsequent positive test of her partner, and father of her child, world-record sprinter Tim Montgomery, has left Jones with a now classic Olympic profile - superb talent in which it is virtually impossible to believe.

So what do you do at these Olympics? Cherry pick moments of glory and grace and hope you have not been deceived? What, when you really think about it, is the alternative? Up on the Acropolis yesterday you could reel back 30 years of Olympic history and, sure, only a dead soul would not feel surges of excitement.

You could pick out Olga Korbut at Munich and Nadia Comaneci at Montreal, but then you had to think of the misery and the pain these young women suffered when the glory had passed. You could remember tracking Korbut through the athletes' village in Montreal, four years after her glory, and finding her on a balcony with tears running down her gaunt and haunted face. She was still a teenager.

You could recall Seb Coe coming back at Steve Ovett in Moscow, and then four years later, in Los Angeles, winning gold again and being christened the Lord Byron of the track by a leading American columnist. You could remember Carl Lewis winning gold in Atlanta in 1996 with his last jump and Michael Johnson in his gold shoes after Muhammad Ali came blinking into the spotlight and lit the flame.

But nowadays only a fool digs into the past without the question, however fleeting, what was true and what was false? You couldn't go through Seoul in 1988 and ever abandon the need to ask that question. There was never a betrayal like Ben Johnson's, or so you thought. He took us to the stars with that run which etched disbelief on the face of second placed Carl Lewis. He shattered the world record, and you knew when it happened you would never forget the coiled power that was released so astonishingly. And then, in another grey dawn, you saw him hustled to the airport, a stunned, inarticulate man, who for the rest of his life will say, in a halting voice forever invaded by bitterness, that he committed track and field's only unforgivable sin - being caught.

Five years ago we should have known, finally, that the Olympics would never truly outrun the sin of Johnson.

The evidence came over breakfast in a London hotel with Juan Antonio Samaranch, who more than a decade after the Seoul disaster was still fighting to hold together an empire besieged by spiralling drug use on the track and widespread corruption in the committee room.

In Seoul Samaranch vowed that the drugs war would be fought to the death. But in London there was a different tune. Perhaps, said Samaranch, the drug battle should be modified, new criteria be applied. Maybe now the banned list should include only drugs that were proved to be dangerous to health, a proposition which was probably poorly received in the American home where the teenaged son, a baseball player, had blown off his head while suffering depression which came with use of steroids.

However, in the face of reality, maybe Samaranch was touching on the truth that the drugs battle, in any pure sense, is unwinnable. Rogge firmly rejects such an idea - and the other one argues that all the millions which are devoted to testing systems which will always be vulnerable to the next designer potion or masking agent should be devoted to the education of young athletes. Let them know the risks, measures the odds, and go about their competitive lives.

That's what the Irishman Cathal Lombard did when he faced the reality that only chemistry could carry him into the Olympics. He ordered drugs on the net and then, when his Olympic dream perished, he said, "Hands up, I did it."

His countrymen and women were less than profoundly shocked. His results had been startling in recent months and the Irish remembered how his compatriot Michelle Smith invaded Atlanta in 1996 with a burst of unsuspected brilliance that brought gold medals in the swimming pool. Ireland waited in the rain to welcome her home, a gesture remembered painfully when she was later caught tampering with a test sample.

Before Johnson's fall, Arthur Gold, the veteran head of the British Olympic Association, said that he believed at least 50 per cent of the athletes involved in the Seoul Olympics had in some way or other explored the advantages of using drugs to aid performance.

It was a cool-headed assessment that made something of a joke of the world's outrage when Johnson fell from his pedestal.

Here in Athens there is no such calculation available. We are told that this week's motley bunch of culprits were the losers, the minority who shame the rest of the field. It is a pretty thought, of course. Rogge, the Olympic leader, and Steve Backley, the old javelin thrower coming up to his last challenge, insists that the cheats are on the run. The testing is relentless as it mops up the last of the dregs.

So why such little uplift as the Olympics come home to the city that stretches below you in its new pagan glory of dazzling stadia? Why is there such a chill in the sunlight?

Maybe it is because the Olympic lie has simply become too flagrant. How easily do you cheer a winner when you still hear the screams of anger by Evelyn Ashford, the fine American sprinter who was carried out of the Olympic stadium in Seoul by Carl Lewis when she was usurped by the sensational rise of Florence Griffith Joyner.

Flo-Jo never tested positive and when she died young her friends insisted no medical evidence suggested her condition had been created by drugs. But no winner ever carried such a burden of doubt. When she crackled her way to victory the inhabitants of the IOC section of the stand refused to applaud.

Maybe some of the survivors will understand if some of us react in similar fashion when these Olympics reach their moments of climax. No winner here will be so exotic as the lady with the long, painted fingernails, but every one of them will share a little of her forlorn fate. It is what happens when sports lovers can no longer quite believe what they see.