Tough justice ensures Olympic gold glitters
At the Olympics, crossing the finishing line and passing the obligatory drug test will no longer be enough to win gold. As of this week, athletes may also need to prove that, ethically, they deserve the medal, too. That, essentially, is the tough standard the International Olympic Committee set in withholding the biggest honor in world sports from Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou. Complain all you like about the IOC, for instance that it's a cosseted club of overly powerful sporting bigwigs whose moral compass has sometimes veered off-kilter. But this time, Olympic bosses got it right. For those shiny golds to keep inspiring future generations to take up sport and dream big you can't be handing them out to athletes in disgrace. The background: Thanou, silver medalist in the women's 100 meters at the 2000 Sydney Games, became first in line for the gold from that race after it was stripped from doper Marion Jones. But one reason Thanou didn't inherit the medal automatically is because she subsequently trampled on anti-doping rules herself. That was in 2004. She and fellow Greek sprinter Kostas Kenteris had been expected to star at their home Olympics in Athens that year. Instead, they brought only shame. They withdrew from the games after it emerged that they were serial offenders in giving drug testers the run-around. They later confessed to missing three tests, a big rule book no-no that suggests that they had something to hide, were almost criminally disorganized or, as Kenteris claimed, weren't given enough time to show up. Believe what you will. They explained a no-show in Athens with an allegedly cockamamy excuse about being involved in a motorcycle crash - "allegedly" because the slow wheels of Greek justice haven't got around to trying them on the charge of lying to authorities. So what has all this got to do with the 100-meter dash in 2000? Just because Thanou was evasive four years later in Athens doesn't mean she was doping in Sydney. Indeed, as the silver medalist, she was tested then and passed. So, it would seem she should get the gold that Jones stole with chemical help. That would have been the easy route, less likely to finish in court. But it would have been wrong. Gold for Thanou would have sent the message that athletes can spit on the rules of fair play and get away with it. The IOC would have appeared spineless, valueless, had it wriggled out of this by saying it has no proof that Thanou was dirty in 2000 and therefore couldn't prevent her from inheriting the medal. The notion that Olympic gold represents the highest pinnacle of sporting achievement would have been tarnished. "Awarding a gold medal means granting an honor and so the question is whether today she would deserve such an honor," IOC vice president Thomas Bach explained in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "We are of the opinion that she does not deserve that honor." "It was a moral standpoint we wanted to express," he said. "This is exactly the message that we wanted to send, that the gold medal carries also the values with it." Bravo. For too long, sports fans have been taken for a ride, but not duped, by cheating athletes exploiting the loopholes in the drug testing regime. And too often, not least because they risk being dragged through the courts, sports authorities won't act without ironclad proof. Tour de France organizers have been a notable exception, rejecting some suspected but not proven dopers. With Thanou, the IOC is now taking a stand, too. Perhaps she was clean in 2000 but given what happened in 2004, can we be sure? Better, as the IOC has done, to rule that there was no gold medalist in the Sydney race. "Enough is enough, you can't miss one, two, three tests ... You have to stop treating people like idiots," says Philippe Lamblin, the head of French athletics at the time of the Sydney Games. He calls the IOC decision "courageous." "We've been cheated for 20 years because we haven't been strong enough, now we are strong enough," he says. That Thanou keeps her silver is untidy. Why does she deserve it if she isn't deserving of gold? But without proof of cheating in 2000, taking that medal away could be impossible, even unfair. Said Bach: "Taking the silver away would mean sanctioning her retroactively and this is another issue." One also wonders whether the IOC is setting itself a precedent here, staking out high moral ground, that it won't be able to cling to in future. And decisions taken in committee are rarely ideal, inviting suspicions of a personal vendetta against Thanou or that the IOC is abusing its considerable power and mostly interested in preserving the monetary value of its Olympic brand. But the alternative would have been worse. --- John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.