Monday, May 24, 2004

Send drug-clean team to Athens


American sprinter Kelli White's two-year suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs brought a sense of relief to some athletes and dread to others. White agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and expects other athletes will be charged. She is the first athlete of Olympic or pro rank to be snared by the federal investigation of BALCO, a California company accused of illegally distributing steroids.

Steroids may give an unfair edge to athletes competing at all levels, from high school to the pros, and no matter the cost to U.S. Olympic hopes, officials need to crack down on cheaters.

But a "level playing field," to use that old sports cliche, is still elusive in such cases, even with advances in testing. THG, the designer drug targeted by the BALCO investigation, was not detectable last baseball season, but researchers have since devised a test to screen for it. At least five pro baseball stars, including San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds and the Yankees' Jason Giambi, have come under suspicion. Bonds' personal trainer was linked to BALCO, and Bonds' attorney is contesting a re-test of a urine sample of the star taken last year.

Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones has come under suspicion for a check written to BALCO, and her former husband was tossed from the Sydney Games for failing steroid tests. Jones threatens to sue if she is suspended on such evidence. Some legal experts faulted Sen. John McCain and the Commerce Committee for turning over evidence from the Justice Department probe of BALCO to the Anti-Doping Agency.

Now the International Olympic Committee has further tilted the playing field by approving transsexuals to compete in the Olympics. A sex change from male to female requires lengthy hormone and other drug treatments. Even sex-change tennis celebrity Renee Richards thinks the IOC's new policy is inconsistent and unfair, if not crazy.

The Athens Olympics' opening ceremonies are less than three months away. The U.S. team's top ranks could take a hit from this drug probe, but if it's fair and based on sound science - not suspicion - it should help clean up sports at all levels.

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