It's happening again. It happens every Olympics now. The positive tests, the announcements, the stripping of the medals.
Three Bulgarian weightlifters lose their medals after testing positive for diuretics. A Belarussian hammer thrower and a Latvian rower are bounced from the Games after positive tests. The women's gymnastics all-around gold medalist, Andreea Raducan, is stripped of her medal because she took an over-the-counter cold medication.
A cold medicine. This is a new low.
No, wait. Here's a lower low: It's revealed that C.J. Hunter, a shot-putter who's not even competing in the Olympics, tested positive for steroids over the summer. Hunter's in Sydney with his wife, American sprinting star Marion Jones. Why we need to know about his positive drug tests is lost on this observer, and why this information came out when it did is lost on just about everybody.
The intrepid drug cops of the International Olympic Committee have turned the Olympics from an athletic event to a bad detective novel. Instead of enjoying the magical drama of the world's best athletes competing on the world stage, we sit and wonder if the performance we're watching is going to stand up. Will that emotional medal ceremony be rendered moot by some tainted wee-wee? Is the real winner that glum-looking fellow with the silver medal? Or is he "dirty" too? Kind of saps the drama from the whole thing.
And to what purpose? In stripping Raducan of her gold medal, the IOC stated flatly and blandly that the 16-year-old gymnast did nothing wrong: "We consider it was an accident," said the drug czar, Prince Alexandre de Merode. "The medication was prescribed by the team doctor. [Raducan] is not directly responsible. But we have rules and we have to apply the rules."
"We feel we have no choice," said Frangois Carrard, the IOC director general. "In the fight against doping, we have to be tough and be blind to emotions and feelings."
And fairness, and reason. It's good to know that the Olympics, that supposed festival of world brotherhood, togetherness and all that's good and loving and wholesome, is run by unthinking bureaucrats who will follow the rules, sir, right out the window if need be, sir, because they're the rules, and we have rules for a reason.
Which brings up the question: What's the reason? Why are athletes not allowed to take legal drugs like those found in ordinary cold medicine? For that matter, why are they not allowed to take anything they damn well please? The stated reason is to ensure fairness, but no, that can't be it. The IOC isn't even trying to argue that it's anything but unfair to disqualify Raducan for doing something that not only wasn't her fault, but didn't "enhance" her performance. (Pseudoephedrine, the drug Raducan tested positive for, provided "no competitive advantage at that competition," Carrard admitted.) We know it's not fair, the IOC says, but rules are rules.
Well, fairness has nothing to do with it. The Olympic war on drugs exists for the same reasons as the real-world war on drugs It provides jobs for the drug fighters and political capital for politicians who know that it looks good to look like you're anti-drugs.
I'll get letters. Vicious e-mails that will make it hard to remember how reasonable and intelligent (and good-looking) Salon's readers are. Drugs are illegal because we want to see a fair competition (you idiot), they'll say. It's not right that some athletes take illegal drugs that make them bigger, stronger, faster, while others "play fair."
But why not? What makes these substances unfair? They're only illegal because somebody made them illegal. And why was that? Because they "enhance performance"? Well guess what: So does water. Ever try to run a marathon without some? I was always told that eating vegetables would make me bigger and stronger. Shall we ban them too? I'm not being funny. I really don't get where the line is.
Maybe it's because these drugs harm the athletes' bodies in the long run. I'll ignore the fact that your local skid row isn't exactly crawling with burned-out cold medicine junkies and take this argument seriously long enough to say: Who cares?
It's the athletes' choice. If they want to take drugs for long-term gain at the expense of their bodies later, why not let them? You do what you can and what you're willing to to make yourself the best you can be, and if you have to pay for it later -- with a body broken down by drugs or anorexia or injuries, or with marriages and friendships broken down by the years spent focused on training -- that's your choice. I wouldn't make that choice, but it's no skin off my nose if C.J. Hunter, say, makes it.
A heartless approach? Maybe, but I don't see anybody trying to keep kids from, say, playing basketball or football. Ever met an old offensive lineman or power forward? Ask him about his knees. There are lots of things beside drugs that ruin bodies. What does eating a Big Mac or two every day at McDonald's (an official Olympic sponsor) do to you?
Give me a hopped-up Ben Johnson any day, pupils fixed and dilated, tweaking out of his mind for all I know, running away with the 100 meters like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. You can keep the lucky loser trading in his silver medal for a gold in a room under the grandstand. Let's decide the winners on the field of play, and how you get ready to play is your business, not mine, and not the IOC's bureaucratic zombies'.