With a gold medalist in one its top events busted for doping at the Beijing Games, the troubled sport of track and field is once again at the center of an Olympic drug scandal.
Bahrain's Rashid Ramzi, the 1500-meter champion, was among three
track athletes - and a half-dozen Olympians in all - snagged in the
latest game of cat-and-mouse between cheaters and those who try to
The twist in the nabbing of Ramzi and the rest was their drug of choice. It's called CERA, a new form of EPO, which increases endurance by stimulating production of the red blood cells.
Olympic drug testers recently came up with a way to detect the CERA. They called for retesting of 948 samples taken from the Beijing Olympics; many of those retests were looking for CERA.
Six came back positive. One was from weightlifting, two from cycling - including a silver medalist - and three from track.
Of the four medals that have already been stripped for doping violations from Beijing, three were from track and field. Ramzi's would make it four. Granted, there are more athletes and more tests in track than other sports. Still, this is hardly the news that the sport hopes to generate after decades of continually trying to reinvent itself as clean.
"Honestly, track and field didn't need another blow like this," said Dee Dee Trotter, a 2004 American gold medalist who runs the anti-doping Web site Test Me I'm Clean. "Our reputation is truly depleting and it doesn't help when fans who have long loved the sport begin to doubt what they see."
Though the 1,500 meter race isn't immensely popular in America, in international circles, it is considered right up there with the 100 meters as the most popular race. It's the metric mile, a distance the common man runs for recreation and a long-standing test of both speed and endurance at the elite level.
The fact that Bahrain got its first Olympic gold medal in the event made it that much more special. Calls to Ramzi and his coach seeking comment were unanswered.
If Ramzi's positive test is upheld through the appeals process, the medal will go to Asbel Kipruto Kiprop of Kenya, one of Africa's more traditional running powerhouses.
"But that's one of the worst things about it, is that they'll send it to him in the mail," Trotter said. "You want your time to shine. You can't get that back. You never take that victory lap, never enjoy that moment the way it was designed for the winner to enjoy it."
Track and field medals have been stripped and redistributed for decades, though the scandals of the last decade have taken on more sinister elements of multilayered doping programs and attempts to cover them up.
In a scandal that dragged out for more than eight years, Marion Jones was stripped of all five of her medals - including three gold - after admitting that she was doping at the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The 2004 Athens Games were overshadowed by the scandal involving Greek sprinters Katerina Thanou and Kostas Kenteris, who were banned after allegedly evading drug tests on the eve of the games. Stripped of golds in Athens were winners in the men's hammer throw and discus and women's shot put.
Officials from International Association of Athletics Federations even seemed relieved about the latest scandal, noting that three positives out of several thousand tests was not an elevated number.
"The IAAF would like to commend the IOC for their efforts in the storage and reanalysis of samples and for their coordination with the IAAF in this process," the federation said in a statement. "This step shows that athletes who cheat can never be comfortable that they will avoid detection and sends a strong message of deterrence."
The samples are deep frozen and stored in case they're needed for further testing down the road. There have been questions about how accurate tests can be on samples held as long as eight years, but the prevailing theory among anti-doping experts is that the level of a drug could only decrease over time, and the chance of an increase are slim.
The emergence of CERA offers the latest proof of why holding samples for eight years is a good idea.
There is nothing particularly new about the drug itself. It is very much like EPO in that it elevates red blood cell count and has legitimate uses for people with renal failure or cancer who have trouble keeping their counts elevated.
What's new about CERA is that it is designed to not be filtered through the kidney as easily, which allows it to stay in a person's system longer. In the doping world, that makes it easier to take - maybe only once a month instead of once a week - but also more risky because it's detectable longer.
Those who got hold of it around the time of the Beijing Olympics may have been hoping no test would be developed for it - or maybe they underestimated the amount of time it would stay in their system.
The French anti-doping agency was the first to create a test for CERA, nabbing four cyclists, including third-place Tour de France finisher Bernhard Kohl of Austria, more than two months after the Tour ended. That success prompted the IOC to announce on Oct. 8 that it would retest samples from the games.
"Probably the biggest difference between anti-doping now and anti-doping before 2000 is that guys like me keep reading science papers and going, 'Oh, this could be a product that could be used for doping someday,"' said Larry Bowers, lead scientist at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "That's when we say, let's go talk to this company, see what the drug is all about and get ready for a day when it's going to be abused."
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