BARCELONA, Spain — So here came Gail Devers, flying over the final hurdle of her Olympic race, cheeks puffing, nothing but open track and a finish line ahead of her. This should have been the end of a Cinderella story. She clears that hurdle and runs straight into America’s living room, the hero of the Games, two gold medals for the woman who almost had her feet amputated.
The end of a Cinderella story. But Gail Devers did not clear that last hurdle. She hit it with her lead leg, knocked it over with a clang, tripped and stumbled one, two, three, four, five steps before falling to the track, then crawling the last few inches, hearing a gasp from the crowd as a thunder of feet passed her to the tape.
“All I could think of was, ‘Stay up, stay up,’ ” Devers would say. “And after I fell, all I could think of was, ‘Crawl, crawl . . .’ “
Cinderella on her hands and knees.
And the story was just beginning. Torrence, the accuser
Down in the basement of Estadi Olimpic, just minutes before that 100-meter hurdles race, Gwen Torrence sat with a gold medal around her neck, facing several hundred reporters. She had just won the 200, a fine accomplishment. But last week, she had lost to Gail Devers and others in the 100. Then she accused two of the higher finishers of using drugs. A hurricane of controversy blew up.
Now she was talking again.
“Drugs are everywhere at these Olympics,” she said. “People just don’t want to believe it. In swimming, in track and field. They’re everywhere.
“I know I stepped on a lot of toes with what I said. Nobody wants to speak
up. But I spoke up, and it’s too late to take it back.”
As reporters scribbled, a woman sitting next to Torrence, Jamaica’s Juliet Cuthbert, squirmed in her seat. A silver medalist in the 200, she was one of the women who beat Torrence in the 100 — one of the accused, in other words. And she was angry. Finally, she turned to Torrence with a scowl.
“You can’t just make accusations without proof, Gwen. How would you like it if I came out and accused you of being on drugs?
“Do you know when I called home after (the 100) the second question my mother asked me — the second question! — was ‘Are you using drugs?’ My mother. I went from a high to a low.”
Torrence straightened. She spoke into the microphone. “I didn’t mean Juliet,” she said.
A reporter asked whom she meant?
The reporter asked Juliet if Torrence had mentioned names to her.
“Irina Privalova . . . and Gail.”
Gail Devers? A remarkable comeback
Back upstairs, Gail Devers had risen and was limping slightly toward the tunnel. She looked at the scoreboard and saw that she had finished fifth. What a sad end this was to a remarkable comeback. Eighteen months ago, suffering from Graves disease, Devers was barely able to walk. Her feet swelled. They ached constantly. She would wear five pairs of socks and extra large shoes and shuffle around a track until those feet were so bloody she had to cut the socks off. A doctor finally ordered her to stay in bed for several months, and she became so helpless her parents had to carry her to the bathroom.
She recovered — “a miracle,” she calls it — and surprised everyone when she qualified for these Olympics two months ago. Then, to what should have been the sound of violins, she snagged the gold medal in the 100 last Saturday, a race that is not even her speciality.
“I guess she surprised you twice,” her coach, Bob Kersee, said grimly after her fall. “Gail was supposed to win this race and not medal in the 100. Instead she won the 100 and didn’t medal here.”
True. But that was not the surprise. The surprise was that a member of her own team was downstairs, right now, accusing her of using drugs. The whispers are everywhere
“They should shoot us with a blood test right here,” Gwen Torrence was saying. “Then you’d see who’s clean.”
Cuthbert was now agreeing with her. “Yeah. Blood tests go back further than urine tests.”
Torrence: “I hate needles, but I’d take a blood test right now.”
Cuthbert: “Me, too.”
Torrence: “I know people don’t want to hear this, but Carl Lewis complained about (steroids) four years ago, and everything he said turned out to be true.”
Cuthbert: “I go into competitions thinking only 90 percent of us are clean.”
Torrence: “I’m not a sore loser, but I don’t like losing unfairly.”
Cuthbert: “Everyone is suspect.”
Torrence: “Everyone is suspect.”
This is the other side of track and field — maybe the part NBC doesn’t want to show, because it’s negative and hurts ratings.
But it is sadly undeniable. And it is everywhere. As soon as someone wins big around the Olympics, someone else starts whispering. Especially if that winner has been away from competition for a while — “You know, in hiding, or just coming out for a big race,” Cuthbert said.
And finally, here she came, down to the interview area, just minutes after Torrence and Cuthbert had gone. Devers was asked about the fall. She was asked about her feelings. Then she was asked about drugs.
Her coach, Kersee, interrupted. “Why are we answering these questions? You know, I wanted to come in here and ask Gwen my own question. I wanted to ask her for proof. She has no proof! I am so upset that Gail and other athletes have to defend themselves against these charges!
“You shouldn’t be allowed to make accusations. Either name names or don’t say anything! Gail and none of my athletes have ever failed a drug test. So why do they allow someone to slander us? Where is the proof?” Happy endings? Not anymore
Where is the proof? There is none. The fact is, even those athletes who use drugs — and there are many — have found chemists smart enough to hide those drugs from the testing procedure. So there is no proof. Not for innocence. Not for guilt. You have a world full of suspicion, conspiracies, finger-pointing.
And it ruins everything. What a shame that Devers, whom America has come to love this past week, should have to endure such whispers, especially after her heartbreaking finish in Thursday night’s race. Can’t Torrence let a good story be? How dare she stir such negative gossip?
And yet, sometimes the truth is negative. Ben Johnson beating Carl Lewis in Seoul was a wonderful story until it turned out to be bogus. The East Germans, who always screamed at rumors of steroids and blood doping, were a great story — until the truth came out: They were lying.
Bob Kersee’s athletes have come under suspicion before: In 1988, his prize pupil, Florence Griffith Joyner, ran some unbelievable races. Earned her gold medals. But she had never been that dominant before, and her muscles looked overdeveloped. She also conveniently disappeared after those Olympics, when drug testing increased. Many insiders, to this day, swear that FloJo was on the juice.
So what do you do? Tell people to shut up? Tell them “don’t bring us no bad news.” Let us say — for the sake of argument — that Torrence is right. Devers did use drugs. What should Torrence do? She can never prove anything if the tests come up negative. And if she names Devers, she can be sued for libel. So, should she simply lose and keep her mouth shut? Or speak up and call attention to the problem?
In a world without trust, there are no rules sacred. So Torrence went home Thursday with venom on her tongue, and Kersee went home with his blood vessels popping, and Gail Devers went home, an ice pack on her shoulder, somewhere between heroic upset, and outright confused. This should have been a Cinderella story. But Cinderella doesn’t live here anymore.