Last winter I was invited to be a fly on the wall for the annual retreat of HSI, the international track club that was gearing up for this Olympic season. The club took over a roomy banquet hall in the Las Vegas Comfort Suites, next to a hall where the Skeptics Society was holding its annual convention.
The HSI stars had plenty of reason for skepticism. After all, the BALCO affair was in full bloom. Everywhere you looked, someone was getting busted for being dirty.
But HSI hadn't been touched by the scandal. And as I looked around the horseshoe table -- taking in Maurice Greene, Jon Drummond, Inger Miller, Larry Wade, Allen Johnson, Leonard Scott, Ato Bolden, Angela Williams and Mickey Grimes -- I was struck by how optimistic they were about Athens. Discount Marion Jones and they were the Olympics.
The one who really caught my eye that day was Torri Edwards. Maybe it was for a dumb reason: her braces. They made her look impossibly cute in a way that TV loves, a Wheaties-ready America's darling. But it was what she said that still sticks in my mind.
One of her archrivals, BALCO client Kelli White, had just copped to taking the stimulant modafinil at the 2003 world championships, and Edwards was about to inherit her 100-meter gold medal. I asked her how she felt. Surely this was a blow for the good guys sitting in that room -- the ones who hadn't been touched by scandal.
She smiled so wanly that even the metal in her mouth couldn't make it sparkle.
"That's not how I want to win," she said. "It's not about getting something in the mail. It's about standing up before the whole world, your friends, your parents. That's how I want to win it." She paused. "That's how I will win it."
No, she won't. At least, not in Athens. The Court of Arbitration in Sport has made sure of it, upholding her two-year ban for taking the stimulant nikethamide at a meet in Martinique on April 24.
Should she have known it was trouble? It sure seems that way. The tablets were provided by a licensed chiropractor who worked for HSI. The French label even carried a warning to athletes that it could result in a positive doping test. But Torri took it anyway, not counting on how the sports drug war could ever flatten a woman with sweetheart looks.
Two weeks ago, American sprinter Calvin Harrison received a ban for taking modafinil in 2003. He might have gotten a warning, but this was his second offense. His first? He took a mild stimulant when he was 19 and running at the junior nationals. He wasn't given a hearing back then. And the amount wouldn't be illegal if he got caught today. But this is no time to sympathize with track stars. USADA brought charges, and a group of three arbitrators supplied the career-ending skid marks.
Poor Torri. She didn't have a chance after that. Her case could scarcely be called more compelling than Harrison's. (Remember how Calvin and his twin brother Alvin, who grew up homeless in L.A., were the feel-good story of Atlanta in 1996?) Her panel of arbitrators tried to find some wiggle room, asking whether there might be any "exceptional circumstances" that could be invoked. But the word came back from the International Association of Athletics Federations -- a higher body -- that there would be no special treatment.
How could there be? Like any drug war, this one depends on consistency, despite the miscarriages that may result along the way. Even CAS felt compelled to note that its decision "may appear harsh," since it used the same axe that they would have swung had she taken steroids, or the oxygen blood carrier EPO
But we're beyond shades or degrees here. Even though Torri was described as conducting "herself with honesty, integrity and character ... [and] has not sought to gain any improper advantage or to 'cheat' in any way," the lords of discipline spoke: She has to go.
Who are these people? Beats me. In an age of Judge Judys and Court TV, you'd think we'd at least get to see the people with the power to end careers. But they're nowhere to be seen.
After the Games, Congress is going to revisit how USADA and the drug testing system worked. I'll be picketing the hearings with my placard: Free Torri.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.