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U.S. has lost its dope-free image of old

The Baltimore Sun

East German female swimmers with impossibly broad shoulders. European cyclists who roared over the Pyrenees without ever seeming to tire. A Canadian sprinter whose thighs looked as big as a normal man's torso.

Twenty years ago, our images of sports dopers dwelled on foreign competitors snatching titles and medals from U.S. athletes believed to be clean. It made for an easy hero-villain dichotomy.

But with Marion Jones' admission yesterday that she lied in denying steroid use before the 2000 Olympics, the old story line was driven deeper into the past, and another prominent American athlete was implicated in the drug scandals sweeping sports.

Jones, who could lose her three gold medals and two bronze medals from 2000, was perhaps the greatest female sprinter the country had ever produced. Cyclist Floyd Landis recently lost a doping appeal and will likely forfeit his 2006 Tour de France title. New home-run king Barry Bonds reportedly told a grand jury he unknowingly used the same substances Jones admitted receiving from San Francisco's BALCO lab.

With these and other examples, is it fair to wonder whether U.S. athletes are not only equal-opportunity dopers but leaders of an unsavory pack?

"The rewards are great all over the world, but in the U.S., I think we've attached such tremendous monetary awards to athletic success that we have become a driving force in the development of drugs," said Dr. Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon psychologist who wrote a book about state-sponsored doping in East Germany.

Ungerleider said he would not call the U.S. a doping leader because the government has never staged a concerted effort to develop unclean athletes.

"But I think there was this perception in the 1970s and 1980s that the U.S. athletes were relatively clean and played by the rules and worked out religiously," Ungerleider said. "And there was this accusatory finger pointed toward the East. That perception has been shattered."

He recalled an interview with an East German doctor in the early 1990s: "He was happy to tell his story, but he said, 'Someday you will see we're not the only ones. You have skeletons in your closet too.' It struck me as sort of an eerie prediction at the time, but he was absolutely right."

Athletes recognize the changed dynamic as well.

"I would say that obviously, during the Cold War era, we would never have thought the U.S. was the number-one drug cheater," said John Godina, 35, a two-time Olympic medalist in shot put.

Now, he said, there is more reason for concern. But Godina takes solace in the country's pursuit and punishment of cheaters.

"It's bad to have people cheating," he said. "But would it be better to have a nation burying its head in the sand or trying to nail people and getting them? I'd rather be trying to clean things up and putting a scarlet 'S' on the cheaters."

Worldwide skepticism about U.S. anti-doping efforts has actually decreased in recent years, said Dr. Gary Wadler, a professor at New York University and member of the committee that determines banned substances for the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Wadler said observers from other countries wonder why U.S. professional leagues do not adopt Olympic standards for banned substances and punishment but are impressed by recent law enforcement crackdowns and by the attention Congress and President Bush have given to doping.

"I think the world sees that the U.S. has, at every level, become more serious about this issue," Wadler said. He said he has no way of knowing whether doping is more prevalent in the U.S. than in other countries.

Doping historians say there's little question that state-sponsored doping programs - most notably in East Germany but also in the Soviet Union, Romania and Bulgaria - fueled the rise of performance-enhancers.

Nationalism was a much greater motivator in the 1960s and 1970s. An East German might earn a meeting with the president and a nicer family home for winning the gold medal, but the material rewards were relatively small.

That model was replaced in the 1980s and 1990s as Olympic and pro success translated into millions of dollars for athletes in the U.S. and around the world.

Godina said American athletes - cheaters and non-cheaters alike - operate more independently than their counterparts in many countries.

"In the U.S., everything like training is so non-centralized," he said. "They probably can't conceive of that in other countries. They might perceive us as a cheating country, but it's really a bunch of individuals."

The truth now, doping experts say, is that athletes across all sports and nationalities are tempted to use drugs. That has led to a more market-based model, in which labs such as BALCO and Signature Pharmacy in Orlando, Fla., spring up to profit from customers from different sports and different nations.

"I don't think there's any question that a lot of this is being driven by economic engines," Wadler said. "The potential benefits are enormous, not only for the dealer, as would be the case with heroin or cocaine, but for the user."

The list of doping scandals from recent years could be used to teach middle school geography.

The Chinese women's swimming program, which dominated the 1994 World Championships, was riddled by doping bans in the late 1990s and won no medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Failed drug tests claimed top cross-country skiers from Finland, Russia and Spain at the 2002 Winter Olympics. In 2004, Hungarian discus and hammer-throw champions, a Russian shot-putter and a Spanish cyclist were among 24 Olympians nailed for doping violations at Athens. Drug suspicions overshadowed this year's Tour de France, wiping out Kazakhstani pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov and Danish race leader Michael Rasmussen.

Doping scandals have hit Pakistani cricket stars, Australian rugby standouts and Canadian field hockey players.

Mixed into the same time period were numerous U.S. culprits, from middle-distance runner Regina Jacobs, to sprinters Kelli White and Justin Gatlin, to former Maryland football standout Shawne Merriman, to Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro.

Jones appeared yesterday in U.S. District Court in White Plains, N.Y., to plead guilty to charges of making false statements to federal agents about her drug use. She had earlier sent family and friends a letter admitting she used steroids before the Sydney games.

Jones' admission followed years of denials.

It is the task of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, funded by Congress and the U.S. Olympic Committee, to catch cheats.

The agency has conducted 10,000 drug tests since 2000 and punished such offenders as Landis, who was banned for two years, and track star Tim Montgomery, Jones' former boyfriend, who also got a two-year suspension.

Before the 2004 Summer Games, a committee led by Sen. John McCain decided to subpoena documents from the BALCO federal steroids investigation and turn the material over to the USADA. McCain told The Sun at the time that he was trying to help the USADA avoid "another [steroids] scandal, which we as Americans do not need."

With another Olympics looming, anti-doping officials say that revelations about Jones and other high-profile athletes actually represent progress.

China, host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, has faced criticism for not testing athletes more aggressively.

But doping officials have praised the country's cooperation with a recent sting by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that sought to shut down a pipeline of steroids and human growth hormone from China.

WADA Chairman Dick Pound has also praised China's revamped testing programs and proclaimed that the 2008 games will be more free of doping than any in recent memory.

Wadler believes the U.S., too, is moving in the right direction. He regards the public relations hits of recent years as acceptable side effects in a greater quest.

"Hardly a day goes by that my phone doesn't ring having to do with some aspect of doping," he said. "We've put this issue out in the public. Maybe you take your black-and-blues when you're exposing the cases, as people wonder what's going on. But on the other hand, we've gotten it out there."

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