Olympic Dope-Busters

Several star American athletes could be banned from the Summer Olympics on charges of having used performance-enhancing drugs - even though they've never failed a drug test.

That's due to a new policy by the US Anti-Doping Agency, set up four years ago by the US Olympic Committee as an independent agency for testing and adjudication for the Olympics and other games. For the first time, the USADA is going beyond using hard evidence and relying on circumstantial evidence to catch cheaters. Last week, the agency sent letters to four star sprinters, outlining chances of doping violations.

The letters are based on documents discovered by a federal investigation of Balco Laboratories, a California nutrition firm which allegedly supplied illegal performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of athletes.

In a world in which steroid users are always one step ahead of drug testers, the USADA rightly recognizes that testing alone won't clean up sports. Newly designed drugs and "masking agents" that prevent their detection can outsmart physical tests.

But in its admirable goal of zero-tolerance of such drugs, the antidoping agency is leaping too far, legally. It plans to lower its burden of proof for circumstantial evidence from "beyond a reasonable doubt," as in criminal cases, to "the comfortable satisfaction" of the panel hearing the case. The lower standard is the equivalent of "clear and convincing" proof in a civil suit. The agency also plans to allow hearsay in the arbitration stage.

The new standards, which would apply retroactively to the runners, would make it easier for the USADA to go after suspected cheaters. The agency argues it's merely coming into accord with accepted international norms, including those of the World Anti-Doping Agency, created by the International Olympic Committee. The International Association of Athletics Federations also recently dropped its "beyond reasonable doubt" test.

Nonetheless, the potential tragedy of athletes mistakenly found guilty is too great to endorse the lower burden of proof. Athletes sacrifice much for a brief career, a moment of glory, and hope of lucrative product endorsements. It is better to miss some cheaters in an adjudication process that is fair, than to bar a few innocent athletes from their sport and ruin their reputations. The lower standard could also encourage some athletes to cook up false evidence against competitors. To see how rivalries can turn bad, one need only recall the physical attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan plotted by Tonya Harding.

Every effort must be made to ensure that enforcers catch drug users, but the USADA should not fight the war on steroids at any cost.

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