Carl Lewis’ bad karma / His unpopularity has magnified drug test questions

Carl Lewis‘ name muddies everything. Rarely has this country produced an athlete so successful and yet so unpopular, at home and abroad. So when he appeared on a list of American Olympians whose positive drug tests were suppressed, the chances for a rational discussion of the revelations, which are quite damning on the whole, disappeared faster than Lewis on a straightaway.

In Europe and particularly in Canada, where Ben Johnson’s revoked 1988 gold medal remained an embarrassment for years, the news about Lewis triggered gleeful calls for the medal, which was handed down to Lewis, to be stripped one more time.

Some of the glee stems more from the sense that U.S. athletes, as the vehicles for huge TV contracts, are coddled in the Olympic system, and that Americans have taken a laughable holier-than-thou stance on doping issues.

But a lot of it is Carl.

He won nine gold medals over four Olympiads, but his haul would have been twice that if the powers of alienation had ever been tested in international competition. He particularly offended the Canadians in the late ’80s, when Johnson was rising to superstardom, persistently implying — without supporting evidence — that Johnson was a cheater and that he, Carl Lewis, was the deserving 100-meter king.

Imagine the eagerness now to brand Lewis a cheat on the same order as Johnson, the most disgraced athlete in Olympic history. The facts don’t bear out that correlation, but in sports, personality, nationality and performance trump principle every time.

The recently revealed test results, according to published reports, show that Lewis’ urine samples at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials turned up only trace amounts of three stimulants. In fact, as of the year 2000, the numbers he registered on the test would have been too low to have prompted the lab to report a positive finding to athletic officials. Back in ’88, the amount of stimulants discovered in his system could have required a suspension, but they also allowed for review.

It takes some truly perverse moral mathematics to equate that to the doping of Johnson, as we know it. A year after testing positive for steroids in Seoul,

Johnson and his coach confessed to a Canadian board of inquiry to extensive steroid use.

Up until then, Johnson’s coach had defended his protege, repeatedly saying that Johnson had to be clean, because he had never tested positive for a banned substance. That’s what all suspicious athletes say when they make spectacular gains, suddenly becoming preternaturally indomitable in an event that had for years shown them to be merely tenacious and gifted — but ultimately human.

I’ve passed every drug test I’ve ever taken.

If anything has been exposed as a fraud, it has been that statement, and not Carl Lewis. Wade Exum, the former medical director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, released the documents that tainted Lewis, and they also reportedly reveal more than 100 hushed positive drug tests between 1988 and 2000, plus 18 positives from Olympic Trials that did not disqualify athletes from advancing to the Games.

Perhaps, in each case, there were mitigating circumstances, as there were in Lewis’ tests. But even if Lewis isn’t categorically guilty of doping, he isn’t entirely beyond suspicion, either.

He has claimed that a dietary supplement produced the positive reading in 1988, but that same defense has failed to protect countless other athletes in recent years. It’s also worth asking why he and training partners Floyd Heard and Joe DeLoach, also named in the documents, happened to test positive for exactly the same substances. They might have a very good answer. They still should hear the question.

It’s also important to remember that these are hardly the first revelations about corruption in U.S. doping cases. In the last few years, an independent testing organization began screening American athletes, but in the days when individual sports took care of their own, well, they took care of their own.

Several years ago, the Bay Area’s Cindy Olavarri bravely described how she had taken steroids, made the 1984 Olympic team, then bowed out because an initial drug test turned up positive. She never officially tested positive, though. Standard procedure required her to take a second test to confirm the results, but she was offered the option of declaring herself too sick to compete before the sample was screened again.

She was rare because she chose not to stay silent. Lewis, if he had kept quiet, might not have earned the antipathy that is enveloping him and his legacy right now. His critics have one big problem, though, if they want Lewis to return his medals, particularly the 1988 one he took from Johnson.

The third place finisher in that race, who would be next in line for the 100-meter title, was Britain’s Linford Christie. When Johnson’s drug test came back completely polluted, Christie’s turned up slightly impure. He had traces of pseudoephedrine, one of the elements that had appeared in Lewis’ tests, in his system. Christie’s levels were almost twice as high as Lewis’ at the U.S. trials, but he was cleared.

The International Olympic Committee medical committee, by a vote of 11-10, reached the same decision on Christie that the Americans reached on Lewis. The vital difference: It was done cleanly, openly. Lewis’ critics should consider that and see that the real dirt in the U.S. files didn’t come from Lewis’ urine sample.

Gwen Knapp
Published 4:00 a.m., Sunday, April 27, 2003

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