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In an Olympic year, every excuse is good

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QUIZ TIME: Which of the following excuses have actually been made by big-name track and field athletes after they flunked a drug test?

a. Someone injected my toothpaste with steroids.

b. My ex-husband spiked my vitamins.

c. Someone pulled the old switcheroo with my water bottle.

d. It was the beer, sex and no sleep.

e. All of the above.

Answer: e., of course — all of the above.

Second question: In the aforementioned five cases, how many of the athletes had their suspensions overturned by national or international federations and were allowed to return to competition?

a. Two.

b. Four.

c. Five.

d. None.

Answer: b. — four!

With highly creative, rock-solid excuses such as these, you can certainly understand how so many athletes have beaten drug raps over the years. These days they're beating them in record numbers.

If you thought the drug war was merely a match of wits between scientists (testers) and athletes, you're probably on drugs yourself. When an athlete flunks a test, the real struggle begins among the drug police, athletes, testing labs and federations.

In recent months, there has been a clearance sale for overturning drug suspensions, and, by the way, who thinks it's only a coincidence that it's an Olympic year? At least eight athletes have had positive drug tests overturned by their national federations and/or the International Amateur Athletic Association.

— Dieter Baumann, the 1992 Olympic 5,000-meter champion with the spiked toothpaste, flunked two tests for steroids last fall. The German federation ended his two-year suspension this summer, deciding that there had been problems "in the taking, storage and transport of the two urine samples."

— Javier Sotomayor, the world record holder and 1992 Olympic champ in the high jump, was suspended for two years after testing positive for cocaine at last summer's Pan Am Games. With the support of Fidel Castro, Cuba's federation refused to suspend Sotomayor, claiming the high jumper was the victim of a political conspiracy. According to the director of an IOC-approved testing lab, "The Cubans were saying we manipulated the data, that we were paid by the Cuban mafia. It was a plot against the Cuban poor people." This summer the IAAF cleared Cuba's national hero to compete at the Sydney Olympics, citing "exceptional circumstances" and his previously clean drug record and humanitarian work."

Whatever that has to do with anything.

"Exceptional circumstances take into account the career of Sotomayor, the fact that during 15 years he underwent 300 doping tests, all negative," IAAF spokesman Giorgio Reineri explained. "There were also his acts as a member of the IAAF athletic commission, many humanitarian considerations and the fact this is his last Olympics."

Apparently, Mr. Reineri believes: (a) that athletes don't beat drug tests, which they do routinely; (b) that the tooth fairy will come if he leaves a tooth under his pillow; (c) that anybody who does good deeds for the IAAF deserves special treatment. One IAAF official went on record to say that Sotomayor had tested positive for cocaine use at least once more since he was busted last summer.

— Merlene Ottey, the Jamaican Olympic silver medalist in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in '96, was suspended for two years last summer after testing positive for steroids. The IAAF overturned the sentence last month saying a laboratory improperly tested her urine. The IAAF explained that the testing laboratory "had not taken into sufficient account factors regarding the specific gravity of the sample which as a result did not exceed the IOC recommended reporting threshold."

Right, and we have not taken into sufficient account factors that could possibly explain the specific gravity of whatever it is he just said.

— Mark Richardson, the top European 400-meter sprinter, flunked a drug test in November, making him one of five British athletes to test positive for the anabolic steroid, nandrolone (the others: Olympic champ Linford Christie, Mark Hylton, Doug Walker and Gary Cadogan.) The British federation recently cleared all of the above, which means no suspensions. Their cases will be heard next by the IAAF. For what it's worth, the official British position is that dietary supplements, combined with exercise, can cause a positive test for nandrolone.

Pardon us if nobody — athletes, fans, media — takes track and field's drug policy seriously. The sport is waging war on its own drug police, not drug abusers. The IAAF, supposedly the leader in track's drug war, left itself a giant loophole when it added an "exceptional circumstances" clause that allows it to pardon athletes who flunk drug tests.

If athletes continue to take performance-enhancing drugs, it's no wonder. In the current climate, they have little to lose.

E-MAIL: drob@desnews.com