Starr: The Doping Conspiracy of Silence

It is said that confession is good for the soul. But I haven't seen much evidence that professional athletes subscribe to that theory. Most will only 'fess up to the most public of failures—missing a free throw, losing a race, striking out with the bases loaded—and sometimes not even that. It is almost impossible to get a pro to address the subject of performance-enhancing drugs, let alone have one discuss the issue with any candor.

In my 15 years on the sports beat, I have succeeded in having that honest conversation just once, and I confess I used a pretty potent drug, administered liberally over a three-hour dinner, to loosen the interviewee's tongue. The athlete, a swimmer of renown who would go on to Olympic glory, had spent much of the evening complaining about the difficulty of competing against the cheaters from China, much as American swimmers had ranted about the doping of East Germans many years before.

This rap seemed pretty rehearsed, one I had heard in one form or another from a number of top swimmers, and I interrupted it mid-sanctimony to pose a slightly more pointed and personal question. "Forget about the Chinese," I said, as I poured my dinner companion another glass of fine red. "What percentage of the American swimmers do you believe are using performance-enhancing drugs?" There was a prolonged silence, then just the hint of a smile and, finally, a rather remarkable answer: "Everybody but me."

I, of course, took that to mean "everyone, including me," since I couldn't fathom how anyone who truly believed everyone else was cheating could possibly hew to the straight and narrow. And from that moment on—and it was more than a decade ago—my cynicism toward athletes and drugs was ... well, let's just say it was significantly enhanced.

So when I stared into the teary eyes of sprinter Kelli White who, having won the 100 and 200 meters at the world championships, proclaimed that she was only taking the stimulant modafinil because of a family history of narcolepsy, I didn't believe a word of it. When I heard the cyclist Tyler Hamilton, a genuinely good guy from my hometown, proclaim his innocence after he failed a drug test, I understood that even good guys might make a misstep. And when another popular athlete, Rafael Palmeiro, said that only tainted vitamins or diet supplements could have accounted for his testing positive for steroids, I was ready with some alternative explanations.

Now we are witnessing almost simultaneous revelations of failed drug tests by two of America's most prominent international athletes, Tour de France champion Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin, Olympic gold medalist at 100 meters (he also won a silver and a bronze in Athens) and coholder of the world record in that event. Both adopted elaborate preliminary defenses that suggest outright denial alone is no longer an option.

Landis, who flunked the first drug test (and will get the results of a second, from the "B" sample, this weekend) borrowed from White's natural-born narcoleptic defense suggesting he simply had unnaturally high levels of naturally occurring testosterone. And he wondered if the boozing he had done the previous night might have accounted for the damning test result. Was it beer or Jack Daniels? He seemed a bit confused about the details, though it was certain that, even after such partying, he managed to blow the field off the mountain the following day. However, both of his explanations may be lacking if, as The New York Times reported, the extra testosterone turns out to be of the synthetic variety. In other words, something you can't be born with or stimulate with a beer and a shot.

Gatlin had already used up the medical syndrome defense. When he tested positive for a banned amphetamine while in college, he explained that the substance was also found in a medication he was taking for attention-deficit disorder. While the failed test counted as a strike against him, the sympathetic defense resulted in his ban being reduced to a single year. Gatlin returned to greater glory and became one of the most outspoken advocates of clean competition. What he failed to do, however, was split from coach Trevor Graham, whose checkered reputation includes a considerable history of working with athletes subsequently banned for performance-enhancing drugs. (Graham has denied supplying steroids to any athlete he's coached.) Included among those is Tim Montgomery, who was once the world's fastest man until his record was eradicated as part of his punishment.

Gatlin not only faces that prospect (for the record he set this spring and shares with Jamaica's Asafa Powell) but, as a second-time offender, the 24-year-old is staring at the possibility of a lifetime ban. When the stakes are monumental, the explanations must be elevated to match. It was left to coach Graham, a natural-born charmer who can deliver the preposterous with a straight face, to explain the reason for Gatlin's new woes: the masseur did it! Yes, folks, it's a conspiracy compete with a mystery masseur, a sinister rubster who administered testosterone cream to the unwitting Gatlin while he lay there helpless. He never knowingly took illegal drugs.

The best defense against allegations of drug use has long been the one that superstars from Lance Armstrong to Marion Jones (another former Graham competitor who has been linked to—and repeatedly denied—drug use) to Barry Bonds have all used: "I have never failed a drug test." When that defense ceases to be operable, either because of a failed test or, in Bonds's case, because of documents and grand-jury testimony leaked to the press, the word "knowingly" becomes critical. We all know from Bonds's grand-jury testimony that he may have inadvertently taken steroids administered by his trainer orally ("the clear") and in the form of a rub ("the cream"). But since he claims to have believed they were just flaxseed oil and liniment, he never "knowingly" took illegal drugs. When I was a kid, we called this defense "playing dumb."

By the time baseball decides whether that explanation suffices, Bonds will likely be retired. But track and field, once upon a time another head-in-the-sand sport, is nowhere near as charitable now. It doesn't matter how an illegal substance got into the athlete's body, only that it's there. The operative theory is that the athlete bears ultimate responsibility. It would indeed be tragic if there are innocent victims, but it's impossible to separate the accidental cheat from all the others spinning fairy tales.

Gatlin has already had bad news from both samples, so he is left to work the court of opinion while pursuing the bureaucratic appeals available to him, a path that has not proved particularly successful for others. Landis has another few days on tenterhooks and then, if necessary, he too can wend his way toward his final appeal, the International Court of Arbitration in Sport.

Even if both men take the big fall, they are likely to remain in the stranglehold of denial. Witness the case of New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi who, having had his grand-jury testimony leaked to the San Francisco chronicle detailing extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs, later made a public apology to fans without any admissions or even an explanation of what he was apologizing for. It was Seussian nonsense of the highest order. But some athletes see shame (along with the possibility of retroactive losses), not liberation, in an honest accounting.