SYDNEY, Australia - It's the Olympic game everyone is playing and no one wants to talk about, at least not in a voice above a whisper:
"Whom Do You Believe?"
As in, do you believe Dutch swimmers Inge de Bruijn and Pieter van den Hoogenband when they say they aren't using performance-enhancing drugs, even though it is "pretty sus" (suspicious), according to Australian star Susie O'Neill, that the Dutch pair suddenly and dramatically has gone from being mostly out-of-the-money swimmers to setting world records every time they jump into the pool?
Or do you believe Romanian weightlifters Traian Ciharean and Adrian Mateas, who have not only hired a lawyer to fight their expulsion from the Games after testing positive for steroids but also claim they'll go on a hunger strike until they prove their innocence? (The "strike" isn't off to a good start, according to one Homebush Bay rumor. The whiff of a McDonald's french fry apparently intervened.)
And what about American swimmer Dara Torres, 33, who has made it back to the Olympics after a seven-year layoff, raising suspicions about chemical assistance? Do you believe her claim of innocence?
Over and over, day after day, you have to play the game at the 2000 Summer Olympics, a sad commentary on the state of ethics and sports at this level.
You used to have to be cynical to think a lot of athletes were using drugs to try to tilt the playing field in their favor.
Now you have to be naive not to think that.
One Sydney medal has already changed hands because of drugs; Ivan Ivanov, a Bulgarian weightlifter, had to give back a silver yesterday after testing positive for steroids.
If he had a story, no one believed it.
A Bulgarian member of the International Olympic Committee confirmed that Ivanov had disgraced himself, and Sam Coffa, vice president of the International Weightlifting Federation, added that Ivanov was "an idiot."
Said Coffa, "Maybe some of the chalk he puts on his hands got into his brain."
Oh, well. At least Ivanov doesn't have to go on a hunger strike, always good news for a weightlifter.
Actually, if he hired a good lawyer and started throwing money around, who knows what might happen? Four Romanian lifters who had been tossed out of the Games in a steroid scandal were allowed back in yesterday after the IWF agreed to accept a $50,000 payment/bribe from the Romanian sports federation.
Granted, the four actually were innocent; three of their teammates had tested positive, leading to the IWF banning the entire Romanian team from the Games - a move that, to quote U.S. gymnast Jamie Dantzscher on another issue, was "so not fair."
Still, the entire episode, from the positive tests to the bribes, is hardly a snapshot of the "higher, faster, stronger" Olympic ideal.
That ideal is already in tatters, of course, courtesy of repeated drug problems. Two hammer throwers, a distance runner, a boxer, a sprinter, a swimmer and more weightlifters, male and female, are among those who have been banned for positive tests taken before and during the Sydney Games.
"And there will probably be others that come up," IOC medical commission chairman Prince Alexandre de Merode said. "We will keep you informed."
He might want to concentrate on the swimming competition, at which the drug rumors are the loudest, courtesy of a numbing run of world and Olympic records. General suspicions are running so high that the swimmers don't even act insulted or indignant anymore when asked if they're clean. They're used to operating under such a cloud.
And the situation is only going to get worse after U.S. women's coach Richard Quick said last night, "I absolutely do not think this is a drug-free [swimming] Olympics."
Quick said that although this is the first Games at which athletes are being tested for EPO, a blood doping agent, he felt the tests were inadequate, not nearly sophisticated enough.
"I'm not pointing the finger at anybody or any nation here," Quick said. "I'm just going on intuition."
It's like the seamy side of college basketball; if you come out of nowhere and land a bunch of top recruits, investigators start checking your Federal Express account. And often find what they're looking for.
In swimming, if an individual or an entire team of athletes from a country comes out of nowhere and starts winning medals, people start whispering.
Cynical? No doubt. But the swimming world has been burned too often not to react that way. Ireland's powerful Michelle Smith was dogged by drug rumors while winning three gold medals and a bronze in Atlanta in 1996, and swimming's international governing body later found her guilty of manipulating a drug test and banned her, although she wasn't forced to return her medals.
Smith is married to a Dutchman, by the way.
It's no wonder de Bruijn, with her powerful muscles, can't shake the same whispers as a shooting star at the advanced swimming age of 27.
"But you can't accuse someone of taking drugs just because they're swimming fast," U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. said last night after finishing third in the 100-meter freestyle final behind van den Hoogenband, now a double gold-medal winner.
So why is "VDB," as he is known, suddenly so awesome?
"He's on the most powerful drug of all - hard work," Hall said.
VDB agreed saying, "I have [been tested] every day, sometimes twice a day. It's impossible to use drugs."
But not if the tests are inadequate, as Quick suggested.
So, whom do you believe?
It's an unfair game, for sure, leaving a touch of taint on everyone, including the many top athletes who are clean, a vast majority among the medal winners.
But with rumors flying and Olympic athletes failing tests almost every day, it's a game you no longer can avoid playing.