A Drug-Free Beijing?

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

I've often wondered how former Olympic athletes feel right about this time, on the eve of yet another Olympic Games. Do they wallow in nostalgia, national anthems taking them back to distant memories of zeal and triumph? What about the ones who underperformed? Do they anguish every four years, reliving what could have, should have, would have been when their one and only time was upon them? It would make an interesting survey, or documentary, talking to former Olympians as their senses flare at each successive Games.

One champion world-beater who splashed her name across Olympic record books, who stole the glory headlines Down Under throughout the Sydney Games in 2000, is suffering deep regret these days, perhaps more so than any Olympian in history. Marion Jones sits today in federal prison, serving her six-month sentence for taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs up to and during her Sydney performances, for lying about it all to Grand Jury investigators, and for participating in check-fraud schemes at the time as well. The plummet from grace for Jones was steep indeed. One moment she was flashing her wide smile, flexing her beautiful, sleek muscles as she glided into the tape at the finish line, bowing her head in pride as medal after medal were bestowed upon her. The next moment, seemingly, her head lowered again, this time to return all those medals, sobbing as she admitted that she had cheated her fans, her sport, her family, herself.

Marion Jones lost all the considerable money she had earned; she lost her future earning power as a Track and Field icon; she forever lost her place as beloved Olympic champion. This week, Jones appealed directly to President Bush to commute her sentence. Her appeal is under consideration, but hundreds of criminals have filed similar requests and many question why Jones should be afforded any special treatment. The new CEO of U.S. Track & Field has even gone so far as to write President Bush, pleading with him to deny Jones' request.

It was apparent for decades that one thing it was going to take to finally curb the longstanding practice of doping in sports was for the big names to fall. In the Tour de France, it was virtually the entire peloton caught dirty that sparked the major clean-up of that sport. In baseball, once the sure-fire Hall of Famers--McGwire, Palmeiro, Bonds--were connected with cheating, the hammer of doping control finally came down and the game now operates, at least to all outward appearances, as clean as mom and apple pie. In Track & Field, the disgrace of marquee athletes started back in 1988 with the positive test of sprint gold medalist Ben Johnson. It's now 20 years later and it's taken the busting of a number of world champions--Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin--to prompt the sport to hustle toward new testing procedures, to refine urinalysis for certain substances. Only three Tour de France riders have tested positive in this year's race so far, all caught because the company that produced the EPO they took put a marker molecule in their drugs, easier to trace. A more efficient test for Human Growth Hormone has just been announced this week.

I feel tremendous sympathy for Marion Jones. She no doubt was among the majority in her time, in her sport, who nose-dived into a drug culture that seemed thoroughly de rigeur for any individual who wanted to rise above the rest. She no doubt takes little solace at the moment, spending her days in that Texas prison, separated from her two small children, that her tragic saga has been a catalyst toward controlling doping.

Heading toward Beijing, we can rest assured, and we can in part thank Marion Jones, that in a fairly short time we have come a long, long way toward experiencing a rare event in modern times, and that's a nearly-drug-free Olympics.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad