Why Tyson Gay scandal is not Marion Jones all over again

Top US sprinter Tyson Gay acknowledged that he has tested positive for a banned substance, rocking the track-and-field world. But the news also points to how much has changed in antidoping.

Matt Dunham/AP/File
US sprinter Tyson Gay attends a news conference for the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in this 2011 file photo. Gay confirmed this weekend that he has tested positive for a banned substance.

Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, and ... Tyson Gay?

This weekend, the holder of the American record for the fastest 100-meter time in history – a man who has repeatedly cast himself as an antidoping crusader – confirmed that he has tested positive for a banned substance. Two other prominent Jamaican sprinters, Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, also acknowledged (personally or through an agent) that they tested positive for oxilofrine, a banned stimulant.

Taken together, the revelations are being cast as one of the darkest days in track and field, comparable to Johnson being stripped of his 1988 100-meter gold medal for testing positive for steroids or to Jones being stripped of her five medals from Sydney, also for using steroids.

One of the most influential American Olympic journalists, USA Today's Christine Brennan, summed up the mood in the sports world when she wrote Monday: "Mark it down: July 14, 2013, the day that the once-revered sport of track and field took another step closer to not being worthy of our trust, or our time."

But is that the only way to look at it?

To be sure, Gay's positive test is a blow. He had run the three fastest 100-meter times in the world this year and was seen as a serious threat to beat Usain Bolt in the World Championships next month in Moscow.

Moreover, Gay was supposed to be one of the good guys.

In 2008, he was a part of Project Believe – a US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) program in which participating athletes agreed to submit to antidoping testing even more rigorous than the Olympic standard in a bid to show that they were clean. Even now, he is a signee of USADA's "My Victory" pledge, which states: "The only sport I believe in is clean sport, sport that is free of all cheating, including doping."

Yet even in his positive test, there are suggestions that this dark weekend for track and field is perhaps not quite as dark as those that came before.

Gay has not yet disclosed what substance caused the positive test, but some reports suggest it could be the same stimulant linked to Jamaicans Powell and Simpson, oxilofrine. If so, that could be significant. It would further confirm the sense that the sport's hardest drugs have been effectively culled out of the system and that today's dopers are being forced merely to tinker on the edges.

Former World Champion sprinter Ato Boldon told USA Today that athletes don't take serious substances – steroids, hormones, blood doping – for fear of getting caught, so they use something less effective.

"Some of these things these guys are getting popped for, it's like, 'Really?' It's a stimulant," Boldon said. "The person I'm competing against is doing something, so someone comes to me and gives me something that's really close to being legal, and everyone feels like this is how I keep my competitive edge."

Of course, in the 100-meter dash, where hundredths of seconds can separate first from fourth, any illegal advantage – however small – can be decisive, throwing into doubt the legitimacy of the result. But the fact that this weekend's revelations surround stimulants also points to how far antidoping has come – and how hard it is to avoid detection.

That is a vastly different lesson than the ones that emerged from the Johnson or Jones scandals, which underscored how rampant drug-cheating had become.

"Some might see the doping violations as the latest indication that the sport still does not have a grip on the issue. But independent antidoping experts say the frequent doping violations in track and field and cycling are a reflection of those sports’ rigorous testing protocols," writes Mary Pilon of The New York Times. "The same incentive to cheat exists in other sports, but positive tests might not be as common because testing procedures might not be as stringent."

There is also the sense the full story has not yet been told. Gay was contrite in admitting the positive test, but suggested that there is more information to come.

"I don’t have a sabotage story. I don’t have any lies. I don’t have anything to say to make this seem like it was a mistake or it was on USADA’s hands, someone playing games. I don’t have any of those stories, I basically put my trust in someone and was let down," he said.

"They [USADA] already know it is some type of accident,... but I can’t discuss it right now. I’m going to be honest with USADA about everything, everybody I’ve been with, every supplement I’ve ever taken, every company I’ve ever dealt with, everything."

"I will take whatever punishment I get like a man. I do realize and respect what I put in my body and it is my responsibility."

The Telegraph, a British newspaper, points to speculation that as many as five positive tests in track and field – all revealed this weekend and thought to be for oxilofrine – "were the result of a new dietary supplement, and that one of the athletes in question was considering legal action against the supplier."

Gay's positive test came from a sample taken out of competition on May 16. Powell and Simpson tested positive at the Jamaican national trials last month.

Italian police on Monday raided a hotel in northern Italy where Powell and Simpson were staying in preparation for the World Championships. The rooms of Jamaican track-and-field athletes – as well as the room of their trainer, Canadian Christopher Xuereb – were searched.

Gay and Powell have dropped out of the World Championships. Gay's "B" sample, which will confirm or deny the presence of a banned substance in the May 16 sample, will be tested "shortly," USADA said in a statement.

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