SYDNEY, Australia — Let’s get something straight, right from the start. Either you believe Olympic athletes use drugs, or you live on Mars.

And if you believe Olympic athletes use drugs but American athletes don’t — then you also live on Mars.

And if you believe American athletes use drugs, but when they’re caught, they’ll immediately fess up to it, then you really live on . . .

Well, you get the point.

There were so few clouds in the Sydney Olympic skies last week that we knew some had to be coming. We just didn’t know they’d take the shape of drug tests, urinalysis and medal strippings.

But those clouds have rolled in. And so here was a petite Romanian gymnast, just 16 years old, stripped of her gold medal because of a cold medication tablet. Here were Bulgarian weightlifters tossed out for failed tests. Here was a Latvian rower facing a possible ban for life. Here was a former Soviet bloc coach caught entering the country with vials of human growth hormone — and claiming they were for his hair loss problem.

And here, finally, in the Stars and Stripes section, was the Olympics’ biggest star-in-the-making, Marion Jones, standing in support of her husband, shot putter C.J. Hunter, who reportedly failed four drug tests for steroids this summer.

And the big man was crying.

“I have never in my life, nor would I ever, do anything to jeopardize my family’s opinion of me,” Hunter said, breaking down Tuesday. “I don’t know what has happened and I don’t know how it has happened. But I promise everybody I’m going to find out.”

Marion, his wife, gave him a kiss.

Forgive me if I don’t give him a hug.

It’s not that I don’t feel sympathy for Hunter, the world champion shot putter. And it’s not impossible that he ingested the steroid nandrolone without knowing it (although, as former Olympic marathoner Frank Shorter points out, “He tested positive four different times, with four different labs, and the same amount of the drug in his sample each time — you be the judge.”).

It’s just that I don’t see Americans as holier than the rest of the world. And I remember Canadian Ben Johnson, when first confronted with the news that he had failed his drug test after winning the 100 meters in 1988, vehemently denying everything. I remember him crying, and passionately claiming someone had “poisoned” his water bottle.

Later we found out he was guilty all along.

And I remember Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, who won a stunning three gold medals in 1996 — even though she’d only been a marginal swimmer before that. I remember her crying, too, and vehemently denying charges that she used drugs, indignantly pointing out that she passed all her tests at the Games.

Yet a few years later, we found out she was guilty, too.

So C.J. Hunter says he’s innocent, says he pulled out of the Games a few weeks ago because of injury, not because he knew these results were coming, and whether I believe him or not is sort of besides the point.

The fact is, all of the following — track and field’s international anti-doping chief, the head medical commissioner of the IOC, the White House anti-drug czar, Carl Lewis, Frank Shorter and a whole host of respected international athletic figures — have at all at least insinuated or flat-out accused America of covering up its drug cheats.

So what I believe and what you believe doesn’t really matter when compared to four bigger issues:

1) Does it make a difference if you knew or didn’t know?

2) Does America cover up its cheats?

3) What does Marion Jones have to do with it?

4) What was Johnnie Cochran doing in the room?

Favored nation status?

Let’s deal with the last one first. Cochran, the controversial lawyer of O.J. Simpson fame, was at Jones and Hunter’s news conference Tuesday, just a few feet from the couple. He claimed he was there “as a family friend.” Then again, he’s a lawyer. He’ll say anything.

Here’s the truth. He’s there because Hunter will hire him to sue over these allegations. And Cochran will go after everything. He’ll claim the powers that be wrongly accused his client, that the tests are flawed, that the accusations caused Hunter emotional distress, lost income, mental anguish, you name it — and it is precisely the fear of such lawsuits that has prompted America’s anti-doping agencies to walk on egg shells over all this stuff.

It is why we never seem to get clear information on our athletes. It is why other nations accuse us of having “favored” status in the anti-doping world. It is why the “dirty” bar for drugs is now so high, any reasonably intelligent athlete could cheat and stay beneath it.

And it’s the reason why, if you are a thinking person, you will put aside your red, white and blue flag for a moment and allow yourself to be at least as suspicious of American sports federations and their athletes as you are of those in other countries.

Which, in a way, brings us to point No. 3. What’s Marion Jones got to do with it?

When Hunter’s failed tests came to light, the reaction from U.S. camp was best summed up by USOC spokesman, Mike Moran. This is what he said:

“We don’t want to do anything that will upset Marion’s emotional support.”

Excuse me? Hello? What’s the higher calling of our Olympic Committee? To make sure we’re playing fair — or to make sure Marion Jones gets to win her medals and brings NBC high ratings and the Olympic Committee more funding?

Not to be too brutal here, but Marion Jones should have no bearing on this. She just happens to be married to Hunter. That doesn’t make her guilty of anything (she has passed all her tests). Nor does it make her concerns an issue.

Here is the information on her husband. 1) That he tested positive for the steroid nandrolone not once but four times; 2) That he had amounts nearly 1,000 times the legal limit in his urine test; 3) That he pulled out of the Olympics before these results were revealed; 4) That he says he’ll now retire from the sport. 5) That he denies doing anything wrong.

Now. I ask you something. If all the above were true, but we were talking about a Bulgarian weightlifter how much doubt would you have about his guilt?

What’s fair is fair

And speaking of Bulgarian weightlifters, let’s not forget that the Games already have expelled five athletes for failing tests, while another cluster of athletes have disappeared on their own — once the writing on the testing wall became clear.

Did we mention the weightlifters who came down with a sudden case of “severe diarrhea due to” — and I am quoting their coach here — “bad beef and rice”?

Did we mention the Qatar weightlifters who arrived at the Sydney airport Sept. 16, and couldn’t be found for an hour? Later, a room where they had been was found full of empty syringes, with urine on the floor. Not surprisingly, those folks are no longer in the Games either.

And while we’re at it, we must mention Andreea Raducan, the Romanian gymnast, who won the overall gold medal, then was stripped of it after testing positive for the stimulant pseudoephidrene — which you’ll find in many cold medications, such as Sudafed. She had been given a cold pill by her team physician. She didn’t know. She’s 16. She had a cold. She took a pill.

She lost her medal. She has been crying for two days.

Which leads us to point No. 2: does it make a difference if you knew? Not according to the Olympic Committee. It is a no-tolerance policy. Your body is your test paper. The urine sample is your answer. If drugs show up, how they got there is your problem.

Is it fair? It doesn’t feel so in the case of Raducan. But if she can lose the highest honor in the Olympics over these tests, then how wrong is it to publicize the results of Hunter’s test — when he’s no longer even on the team?

According to Hunter’s news conference — and the scurrying U.S. Olympic officials who seem bound and determined to protect him and Marion Jones, though not in that order — this is all terrible, unfair, cruel.

What it is, in a word, is a mess. We have foreign officials accusing us of covering up our drug cheats. We have people thinking Jones should somehow be diminished by her mere marriage to Hunter. We have agencies worried about lawsuits, and laboratories that take different times to report findings, and supplements that athletes swallow like Sweet Tarts then blame for bad tests, we have very respectable people like Johann Olaf Koss, the Norwegian Olympic speed-skating hero, saying America gets favored status and Carl Lewis, the U.S. Olympic star saying he knew of a half dozen athlete who failed drug tests and competed with him back in the ’80s.

We have fingers flying and tears falling. We have syringes at airports. We have news conferences and emphatic statements and we have Johnnie Cochran, who, in the end, emerges as the only in-focus image.

We know who he’s looking out for.

I wish we could say the same about everybody else.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

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