The agony of victory

THESE have not been a happy enough Olympic Games. Canadian Ben Johnson's loss of his Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter dash, for steroid use, was the deepest downer, coming as it did after a stunning victory. We're not about to give in to cynicism about drug cheating, play-for-pay professionalism, NBC's ad-saturated coverage (itself a kind of commercial-steroid muscle-packing) - though, as you can see, we're tempted. We'll still exult in the victories like those that got American swimmer Matt Biondi seven medals.

But elite sports do reflect the times. A relatively few world-class athletes stand at the pinnacle of a vast sports pyramid based in college, school, and neighborhood competition. Down there too, drug use has taken hold. The penalties are not just disqualification and disappointment, but prolonged health risks.

Ben Johnson is banned from Olympic competition, his endorsements devastated. He claims he may have been set up by a drug-tainted beverage. The Olympic testers dispute this. Mr. Johnson was to be re-tested by Canadian sports officials on his return to Canada.

The backlash against Johnson has been harsh. The Canadians have banned him from competition for life. This treatment contrasts with the penalties for drug-users levied in American professional football for players like New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who have received one-month suspensions.

To prevent inequities in sanctions, some athletes like hurdler Edwin Moses argue that random testing for drugs must proceed through the training cycle; at present, users can evade detection by stopping early enough before a competition.

At 26, Johnson may find a drug-free comeback too much to ask. But if given a chance, he has the potential to show youth that the only secure winning is in running, win or lose, as good a race as one can. Wrongly aided, victory can be agony.

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