ROME — There are two things you can count on whenever you hold a big international track and field competition: (1) A lot of medals will be won by communist-bloc athletes; (2) sooner or later, somebody will yell “DRUGS!”
All week long at these World Track and Field Championships we’ve had the former: East Germany and Russia are cleaning up in the medal department. And now we have the latter. “DRUGS!” This from the mouth of Carl Lewis. Where you usually find a foot.
But not this time. Last weekend, Lewis finished second to Canada’s Ben Johnson in the 100 meters. Saturday, Lewis won the long jump competition.
But it was in between that things got interesting. During a British TV interview on the ITV network Friday, Lewis said, at one point or another, all of the following:
“There are gold medalists in this meet who are definitely on drugs. . . . That race (between Lewis and Johnson) will be looked at for a long time. . . . There’s a strange air at this competition. Runners are coming out of nowhere and I don’t think they’re doing it without drugs. . . . If I were to jump to drugs I could do a 9.8 right away . . . ” Where does he get this?
Now this is pretty juicy stuff, especially for British television, which is usually full of programs about butlers, or insects. But juicy or otherwise, it should not go unquestioned.
What, for example, did Lewis mean by “gold medalists on drugs”? Like who? This question was posed to him Saturday after his long jump competition.
“I’m not going to point fingers at anybody. A lot of people are doing it. It’s just obvious. . . . It’s just something that you and I know for a fact.”
Well. I appreciate the compliment. But the fact is, I don’t know. I would like to know how Carl knows. Is he privy to the urinalysis?
Is he overhearing things? Has he actually seen anyone taking drugs? This stuff was asked of him Saturday as well.
“I’m not the only one who can answer these questions,” he answered. “Anyone on this interview stand can answer. It’s not for me to say ‘this one is’ and
‘that one is.’ I’m just being honest and straightforward.”
Well. I give him a “maybe” on the first part. “Not exactly” on the second. The fact is that crying “DRUGS!” is hardly new: Last year, at the Goodwill Games in Moscow, several U.S. pole vaulters accused the Soviet athletes of taking drugs (after they lost badly to Sergei Bubka, the amazing Soviet vaulter). East Germany, Cuba and other communist-bloc nations have long been targets of drug and blood-doping charges — mostly because their systems are successful and secret.
I do not doubt certain track and field athletes take drugs or blood-dope. But if Lewis knows something, he should say so — if only to keep from looking like he doesn’t know anything. During his ITV interview, he was heard to suggest — in an off- hand mumble — that Ben Johnson’s record was drug-aided. Whoa. Where does he get that from? When someone asked him the next day, point-blank, if that was true, he again said: “I don’t think it’s fair to point fingers . . . “
Which is sort of pointing a finger. Soon, you question everything
Lewis says drugs are “ruining the sport.” He says athletes who test positive should be “banned for life.” He says America should lead the way with more comprehensive testing “even though it will definitely put the U.S. program at a disadvantage.”
Ho. Time out. What does that mean? That some of the success we’ve had so far has been drug-aided? Us? Not just them? “I don’t want to point fingers,” he repeats.
Now, here is the danger in this: you hear enough of it, and pretty soon, every remarkable performance immediately makes you wonder what was in the orange juice.
Secret is not always evil. Sure, the U.S. is winning fewer medals than ever in this sport. But it’s not all needles and pills. Consider that: (1) Our best athletes have traditionally never gone into track and field. They go into football, baseball, basketball. Not so in most communist-bloc nations. (2) Studies keep showing how American kids are slowly turning more and more into couch potatoes, while in countries like East Germany, the most promising youngsters are sent off to special sports schools, where athletic training is as much a part of the teenage regimen as MTV is in the U.S.
I agree with Lewis. Drugs can ruin a sport. But so can wild accusations. If the medalists here were artificially aided, it will show in their tests.
Towards the end of his press conference Saturday, Lewis was asked if booing from the sellout, pro-Italian crowd bothered athletes during the competition.
“Hey, I won four gold medals and I got booed,” he said, laughing. “How should I know?”
A good question. For a lot of things.