Doping eclipses just about every other pre-Olympic story out there this week in the wake of Trevor Graham's conviction and Antonio Pettigrew's admission that he took performance-enhancing drugs during his career, most notably in 2000 when he was a member of the U.S. men's 4x400-meter relay team that was anchored by none other than Michael Johnson.
Two of the four men on that gold-medal team had already been derailed on BALCO-related charges (twins Alvin and Calvin Harrison were among the original group of athletes named by Victor Conte as having received performance-enhancing drugs from BALCO, and both served drug bans directly tied to that scandal). While there was no proof that the Harrison twins used drugs during the Sydney Olympics, the fact that Pettigrew admitted to being dirty during those Games was enough. The United States didn’t win that 4x400-meter relay medal. And Michael Johnson became a class act this week when he voluntarily decided to give his relay medal back to the IOC, a decision he describes in detail in an article in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph.
Johnson’s decision is in direct contrast to the athletes who ran on Marion Jones’ relay teams in Sydney. In April the IOC disqualified the results of Jones’ relay teams but the USATF tells me that Jones' teammates are trying to keep their medals even now when it’s clear that the results were tainted.
Like I said, Johnson is a class act – and one of the only ones in this sordid saga. (To the “class act” list, I add Kelli White, who was the first BALCO athlete to tell the truth about Victor Conte. Yes, she did it under pressure and after having told some colossal whoppers to try to cover her positive test for modafinil at the Paris worlds in 2003, but once she saw the writing on the wall, she came clean. Very, very few BALCO athletes have done the same, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of their guilt.)
Back in 2000, after Marion Jones won the last of her five Olympic medals in Sydney, William C. Rhoden wrote in the New York Times that Michael Johnson had paid Jones a “supreme compliment”:
“Johnson said he was at ease if the future of the United States track and field were in Jones's hands.”
Jones sounded appropriately humble in response:
''To have somebody like Michael Johnson say something like that about you says a lot about my character, that I'm more than a track-and-field athlete.''
How ironic those words sound today, nearly eight years later. Johnson admits in the Telegraph article to having been naïve; so were we all. This week Johnson finally did the right thing. I would like to believe the women on Jones’ relay teams in Sydney could do the same – return their tainted medals and resolve to keep working towards a goal of a clean playing field in track. Perhaps they too will have a change of heart. Or perhaps the medals’ rightful owners will never see them. It’s up to each of the athletes to decide what’s right. Johnson clearly has already done that.