Fragments Vol 6
By David Yon
Operation Puerta, BALCO, Blood doping, HGH, THG, EPO, the clear, steroids, genetic engineering, East Germany, Ben Johnson, and on and on…
Ben Johnson rocked the “innocence” of Olympic sports fans when he was disqualified for illegal drug use in the 1988 Olympics. His world record performance of 9.79 in the 100 was in large part the product of an anabolic cocktail. That most simple form of play and childhood competition – “on your marks, get set, go” – was forever tainted. He wasn’t the first to get caught doping and certainly there was suspicion of many others. But he was the most spectacular by a long shot. But even though many alleged that he was “only doing what everyone else was doing,” it still seemed possible to ignore the conspiracy skeptics and believe that most others were clean. When the Berlin wall fell and the detailed records of the East German athletic machine became public and documented the extensive drug program implemented by that country, we could still explain it away as the product of the “corrupt communist system.” It didn’t mean petite Mary Decker cheated during that magical World Championships in 1983 when she took on the competitors from the evil empire and won the 800-1500 meter double. But of late, it seems the possibility of anyone at the elite level being clean has diminished to wishful thinking. The BALCO scandal and Operation Puerta make it clear that it was not just the evil empire dedicating the resources necessary to push human limits beyond their natural boundaries in effort to produce “winners.”
The BALCO scandal not only proved doping was not unique to track and field, but seemed to prove that it was “juiced” players, not baseballs, that created the home run explosion in major league baseball. It also sent the message that the doping world was driven by a huge engine fueled by large amounts of money. The scandal began when one jealous coach turned in another. The failure of drug testing systems to unveil the cocktail party showed that the testers were way behind the cheaters, rendering the test nothing more than the way to catch the uniformed or those with bad timing. Ben Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, consistently maintained that Johnson’s test was sabotaged. His argument wasn’t that his athlete didn’t use drugs – he freely admitted that he did and described the program in great detail – but that the drug found in his test sample was not one that he would have administered because it would have stayed in his system too long and been detected. Despite all of the doping by the East Germans, they rarely failed a drug test.
And so on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France, we have Operation Puerta. Spanish police investigating a doctor named Eufemiano Fuentes appear to have uncovered a network of trafficking in all types of performance enhancing drugs including growth hormones and the blood booster EPO. As part of the investigation they have released a list of up to 58 names of tour riders who are accused of benefiting from his pharmaceutical practice. The riders, including all of the returning members from last year’s top five finishers, were removed from the tour. Of course none have actually failed a test yet and it is unlikely that any of them would have failed this year’s tests. Instead, their names were found in the detailed records discovered by the police and when the evidence was presented to the team managers the managers made the decision to pull the riders out of the race. It is estimated in a report published by the Guardian newspaper that over a four year period cyclists and coaches paid the doctors responsible more than $10 million dollars. Of course all of the accused, or nearly all, maintain their innocence. And maybe they will be vindicated. But after awhile, after the evidence just keeps rolling in, it becomes harder to believe that the sub 54 last lap of a 5K race or the gutsy climb up L’Alpe D’ Huez is a matter of will alone.
But hey despite it all, I have taped the entire 2006 Tour so far and I have watched most of it. I guess it is sort of like those days when you can’t figure out the meaning of life. You don’t stop living, you just figure out how to get through the next day the best way you can. There are still over 180 riders going at it as hard as they can. There are still great track meets to watch. So maybe the drug testing is working this year; maybe these are the clean guys. All I know for sure is the announcing crew on OLN has done an outstanding job and, while maybe not perfect, the cameras are getting some amazing footage. Every day of the 2006 Tour has brought great competition, amazing surprises and, unfortunately, some bitter disappointments (from crashes, not failed drug tests). So despite it all, I am enjoying this year’s Tour as much as any I have ever watched. I am glad the exposed are not riding and I will keep hoping that the guys who ride well enough to put on the yellow jersey are clean. And just maybe the next record in the 100 meter sprint or 5K or 10K race will be set by someone who is not chemically altered. But I am sure not betting anything on either one.