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Games' focus on chemistry, not athletes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - A shot-putter married to America's biggest track star. Weightlifters from all over the world. Hammer throwers, a distance runner. Now, the gold medalist in the women's gymnastics all-around competition.

The stain and shadowy murk of performance-enhancing drugs are almost everywhere at the 2000 Summer Olympics, or so it seems.

Skepticism is rising, credibility is sinking and it's time to ask a question that isn't nearly as nutty as it sounds: What if we just legalized all drugs?

What if the Olympics just did away with the whole, stinking business and its infinite, indecipherable issues such as which of the thousands of questionable substances to ban, which of the hundreds of debatable tests to authorize, who is cheating, who isn't, who knows what, who doesn't, yadda, yadda, yadda.

"Positive test A, positive test B, first adjudication, appeal, final adjudication," USA Track & Field president Craig Masback "rapped" at a news conference last night, as if anyone cared about the chronology of a drug scandal.

There's your great moment in sports, circa 2000.

So let's say it's just gone. All of it. The whole issue. Down the drain.

Your new Olympic credo? Let the best chemist win.

You want to put alphabet-soup drugs into your bloodstream and risk growing hair on your eyeballs for the sake of winning a gold medal? Go ahead.

It's what they do in baseball, right? A lot of those guys are pumping up without the commissioner's office caring. Mark McGwire hit 70 homers on "andro." Hundreds of major-leaguers are using Creatine and who knows what else.

The in-season timing of the Summer Olympics isn't the only reason they can't come to the Games. The International Olympic Committee tests for steroids. One strike and you're out. No Don Fehr around to grieve the findings.

Think major-leaguers want to experience the PR nightmare of getting tossed out of the Olympics and labeled as cheaters?

But say all the barriers came down, suddenly. What would happen? There would be enormous savings in money and energy, that's for sure. Millions are being spent on both sides of the war, by those trying to perfect drug tests as well as those trying to beat drug tests. The warring parties could spend their money on something else if there was a cease-fire. They could take each other to lunch and trade chromosome jokes. Go wild and exchange synthetic protein prototypes. Put their heads together and try to devise the perfect ultra-caffeinated supplement.

Oddly enough, removing the specter of possible cheating would clean up the Games in a sense, as weird and backward as that sounds. No more question marks. No more rumors and innuendo. What you see on the playing fields is what you get. What the athletes do behind closed doors is their business. It's their bodies, their futures, their risks.

An unthinkable scenario? Maybe, maybe not. The last time the Olympic movement experienced such a crisis of credibility, when the Games were still supposedly reserved for amateurs and there was an underworld of under-the-table payola, the International Olympic Committee did what was once deemed unthinkable and opened the Games up to pros.

There was some hand-wringing and the whole nature of the Games changed, but in the end, the change was for the better in many cases. No more double-standard. No more debating who was a pro and who wasn't. Everyone could exhale.

Now, everyone could exhale again if all performance-enhancing drugs were legalized.

Well?

You're right, it's an easy, natural and reactionary opinion to reach for in the wake of all these odious drug scandals. The heck with 'em all. If they want to mess themselves up, let them mess themselves up.

But here's a problem: If you legalized all drugs, you'd be jobbing the athletes who don't want to use them. You'd be putting the good guys at a disadvantage. Hardly the way to grow the interest in your product.

You'd also still have a double standard, a thick line separating the athletes who could afford high-end drugs and those who couldn't.

You'd also have deaths. No question about it. And among the deaths just might be the Olympics themselves.

Interest already is diminishing to a degree if you can believe NBC's ratings, and turning the Games into a freak show probably would just make things worse. Most Americans don't want complications when they watch the Olympics. They want happiness, goodness. Giving the Games over to drugs would hardly accomplish that.

If everyone knew that winning a gold medal came down to who had the best bottle of little pills in his gym bag, everyone probably would stop caring. It's an interesting concept that doesn't work in reality.

There are still huge problems with the testing, but it's getting better, stricter, cleverer. More athletes are getting caught, even if it's a small percentage.

The sensible course, as frustrating as it sounds, is to sit back and hope that the testing keeps getting better, that the right side eventually gains the upper hand.

Unless, of course, another five gold medals get stripped before the end of the Sydney Games and more taint gets splattered all over everyone, the innocent as well.

It could be that there's a limit to what we can stand before we give up and cast a yea for legalizing drugs, consequences and common sense be damned. And at this point, well, that limit might not be so far away.

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