Athletes on Trial
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RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. Olympic track and field trials began over the weekend under the shadow of a drug and doping scandal, there were surprises, some athletes under the heaviest scrutiny for alleged doping violations ended up not making the cut for the Olympic team at all, among them, Tim Montgomery. He was accused by the U.S. anti-doping agency, the USADA, for using steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. He failed to qualify for the Athens games. Montgomery is the 100-meters reigning world record holder placed seventh in the final race, far behind winner Maurice Greene.
He blamed the furor over the drug scandal for his poor performance saying: “This is the reason I didn’t win: I’ve got y’all on my back. I have to deal with y’all every day.” Montgomery is one of six U.S. track and field athletes competing in trials this week accused by USADA of using banned drugs. If found guilty, Montgomery, Chrystie Gaines, Alvin Harrison and Michelle Collins face lifetime bans from the sport. Regina Jacobs could face a four-year ban and Calvin Harrison could face a two-year ban.
Star of women’s track and field Marion Jones, who is Montgomery’s girlfriend, is also under investigation for doping but not formally charged. On Saturday, Jones missed her bid to defend her gold medal in Athens when she placed fifth in the women’s 100-meter final. Jones won five medals in the 2000 Olympics in Sidney, and still has the chance to make the U.S. Team in the 200-meter and the long jump.
The track and field doping scandal grew out of a federal investigation into a company called BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative. BALCO’s owner and several others were charged with conspiring to supply athletes with a new steroid THG, which was touted as being undetectable. Meanwhile, more track and field trials were scheduled today and throughout the week.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the events in Sacramento, I’m joined by Elliott Almond. He’s the Olympics reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and has been covering the doping investigation. Elliott Almond, the Olympic trials are one of the premiere events in America, maybe even world athletics. Has the atmosphere been poisoned by drug scandal?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: It absolutely has, I’ve never seen anything like this. The tension is so great between the media and the athletes, this is a time that is usually of celebration, of the great stories of the newcomers and the old comers, coming back for the Olympics and track for once being in the limelight in the United States. So it’s been a tough four days so far.
RAY SUAREZ: Do the athletes in this atmosphere view each other with suspicion, if someone’s build has changed, if someone has trimmed down or bulked up or even not come to the competition at all, saying they’ve been injured?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: I believe the athletes know, from talking to some of them, I believe they know who and perhaps who doesn’t. Nobody ever knows who doesn’t take drugs or really does take them. But the suspicions are great and there’s a lot of back biting, it’s just natural with the sport. But throughout the BALCO investigation it’s really opened the door to some of these athletes, just expressing frustration over the fact, gosh, we’re not getting medals, these other people are taking medals, they’re taking prize money, endorsement money away from them. And it’s been just wild out here.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that word, BALCO. What is BALCO, and why is it at the center of so many stories now about drugs and athletics?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: Well, it’s a small Burlingame nutrition company, it’s actually two companies, one BALCO just did testing of trace minerals for, you know, for, to find out what’s deficient in the body, and it was probably a very legitimate company when it started, really helping people and athletes put the right things in their body to help them perform better.
And then they decided to form another organization, which would help promote their supplements such as ZMA, it’s a really popular legal supplement that’s on the market. It purports to help build testosterone in the body or increase testosterone, I should say. And he started dabbling with ways to help athletes to circumvent the drug testing system, at least that’s the allegations. And through that, more and more athletes started seeking him out.
RAY SUAREZ: So athletes who are currently under suspicion, like the roster we ran down during the report, have any of them failed a drug test?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: Well, some of these people have failed a drug test for sleeping disorder medication, Modafonil, which drug testing officials claim athletes were using to help with getting a boost, if you will, like a stimulant. And we also have nine athletes who have tested positive for THG, which is the previously undetectable designer steroid.
RAY SUAREZ: So previously undetectable, but once you knew what you were looking for, you could find it in a sample?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: Absolutely. And that’s an interesting story in this whole story, if you will. It started, we reported at the Mercury News that it started because a track coach having a rivalry with Victor Conte just a feud over who is the better group of sprinters, turned in a syringe filled with this substance to the anti-doping agency, and the drug tester at the UCLA Laboratory was able to find a new assay and figure out what it was.
RAY SUAREZ: What is it that THG is supposed to help an athlete do or do better?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: Well, it’s probably a garden variety kind of steroid. Maybe that’s making too fine a point on it. But it’s a steroid, anabolic steroid that would promote muscle mass. And there’s no tests that are done on humans to see exactly what these things really do as far as promoting muscle mass, I mean at the amounts they may take. So it’s difficult to know. But anecdotally, I think people believe they work because a lot were using it.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of athletes who are under suspicion are still competing in the trials. Are any still up for spots on the team, and will this be sorted out by the time the U.S. team goes to Athens?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: I don’t expect it to be sorted out by that time, just because the nature of the story just, it’s a ten-headed monster, if you will but there are still people there, as you said in the intro, Marion Jones is competing, she’s going a couple hours in the long jump qualifying tonight. She certainly seems she’ll make the team, we are not strong in the women’s long jump this year, so one would expect her to be able to make the team there. She also has the 200 meters to go and could make the team, although after her performance over the weekend I think there’s a lot of doubts being cast.
RAY SUAREZ: For athletes who are under suspicion but do make the team, if they haven’t failed a drug test, can they still be knocked off by an international body, or will they go to Athens and compete?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: Well, the latest we’re hearing, the international officials seem to be backing away from actually trying to suspend anybody based on what is known, now known as an analytical, non-analytical positive test. This would be a test in which the U.S. anti-doping agency is trying to use evidence that they’ve obtained from the BALCO Laboratories criminal case to convince an arbitration panel that these athletes do not belong in competition.
RAY SUAREZ: So they may not fail according to the rules as they exist, but if their names are on documents, if there’s documentary evidence that they took something, that may be enough to get them off the team?
ELLIOTT ALMOND: Well, that’s what the U.S. anti-doping agency is trying to do, and believes it can and will do. And to answer your question specifically, I think the international officials are uncomfortable with this new area in drug testing or drug adjudication, if you will, and it’s uncharted territory. So they’re all making it up as they go along.
RAY SUAREZ: Elliott Almond, thanks for being with us.
ELLIOTT ALMOND: Thank you so much, Ray.