When news of the suspension of Katrin Krabbe, the world's best female sprinter, hit the track world this month, the first thing that came to mind was Ben Johnson. The comparison was inevitable.
Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who was stripped of his gold medal and world record at the 1988 Summer Olympics after testing positive for steroids, has been blamed for the worldwide decline in track and field. But this time, there are more differences than similarities.
Krabbe and the two other German athletes who were suspended for four years recently are not as well known as Johnson, but they also are not charged with drug use -- they are accused of having tampered with a drug test.
Scandal is scandal no matter what the substance of the charge, but Krabbe's case is interesting on another level. It can be viewed as an outgrowth of the ongoing political and cultural tensions that are a fact of life in today's unified Germany. All three athletes are products of the former East German sports machine.
Krabbe won the 100- and 200-meter races at the World Championships at Tokyo last year and was a favorite to do the same at this summer's Barcelona Olympics. Grit Breuer was a silver medalist in the 400 meters at Tokyo, and Silke Moeller is the former 100-meter world champion.
But it was Krabbe's suspension that caused the sensation. A tall, successful blonde, Krabbe is perhaps the most commercially successful female athlete to emerge from the former East Bloc. Her endorsement contracts -- with Mercedes-Benz, with a cosmetics company, with a sports-drink company, for example -- netted the 22-year-old millions of dollars per year.
The entire scenario is odd. The urine samples were taken from the women in January while they were training in South Africa. The three samples tested negative for banned drugs, but were so similar that they prompted an official investigation. Dr. Manfred Donike, who runs an IOC-accredited lab in Cologne, Germany, pronounced that "all three urine [samples] came from the same person."
The news broke on the eve of the German indoor championships and at first the three were indefinitely suspended, preventing them from competing.
The suspensions were lifted the next day, and Krabbe won the 60 meters, Moeller finished fourth and Breuer won the 200 meters.
But then a week later, the German federation suspended the athletes and their coach, Thomas Springstein. Under German rules, a four-year ban is applied to anyone caught tampering with a drug test.
More astonishing news was admitted by German officials: This was not the first time suspicious tests turned up. Last July, samples from Krabbe and Breuer were surprisingly similar, although no action was taken.
At indoor meets and training sites around the world, the news hit with a gasp. Immediate calculations were made: With Krabbe out of the sprint scene, at least for the women, Jamaica's Merlene Ottey was suddenly No. 1 at 100 and 200 meters. Gwen Torrence of the United States, who had won silver medals in 100 and 200 at the World Championships, was now No. 2.
The financial fallout from the suspensions and the attendant publicity will be significant, for Krabbe and the entire sport. Krabbe's manager underscored this fact when he threatened a $6 million lawsuit if the sprinter lost her endorsement contracts as a result of the suspension.
The defections have already begun. One company, the sports nutrition firm Isostar, has already canceled a two-year six-figure contract it had with Krabbe. Others are expected to fall in line.
Krabbe's entire phenomenon was based not so much on her obvious talent, but on her unprecedented earning capacity. Never before had an Eastern European athlete had Krabbe's appeal. Never before had a former East Bloc athlete been so eager to transform herself for commercial gain. And never before had it been possible, politically.
All that may be lost. Most athletic endorsement contracts are rendered invalid if an athlete tests positive for drugs, or is suspended. But at least one sponsor, Nike, has said it will stand by Krabbe and the others at least through the appeals process.
In fact, Nike has hired a drug-testing expert to analyze the tests and procedures.
Drug allegations are nothing new to Krabbe. Reports had already surfaced that Krabbe had gone to South Africa to avoid Germany's strict drug-testing program. She denied the reports. But Krabbe and other former East German athletes had heard the same rumors when they trained in the United States last spring. The German group moved around Southern California and the Western United States -- leaving frustrated German officials with a handful of forwarding addresses and out-of-order phone numbers.
Krabbe has complained for some time that she and other former East Germans have been singled out by the German federation for more frequent testing.
In 1991 alone, Krabbe said, she was tested 15 times. German officials say she was tested nine times, but in either case the testing appeared to be far more stringent than applied to athletes in other countries, who may face out-of-competition testing two or three times a season.
In fact, many former East German athletes have complained of ill treatment by the German Athletics Federation since unification in 1990. The highest levels of the Federation are occupied almost exclusively by former West German officials, who -- the former East Germans claim -- are out to get them.
Some view the four-year suspensions as a strong anti-drug message -- and a device to distance the unified German sports system from being tainted by the drug scandals that have emerged from the dismantling of the East German machine.
Whatever the motives, Krabbe's case is now in the German courts and sports appeals system. Reinstatement is a distinct possibility, if other appeals can be a guide. Few testing procedures, with their margin for human error, stand the rigorous test of legal scrutiny.
For her part, Krabbe has claimed she is innocent, that she is continuing to train and that she fully expects to compete in Barcelona.