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OLYMPIC NOTES

Playing catch-up by going back in time

Overlooked amid the hubbub over THG, the new "designer steroid" that created the latest doping scandal, is a sobering precedent for cheating athletes. They can now be banned for samples that tested positive months after their competitions for drugs that couldn't be detected at the time. THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) was already a no-no as an anabolic relative to steroids, but was untraceable by the usual methods.

Now that it knows about the drug (thanks to the anonymous coach who sent a syringeful to the US Anti-Doping Agency), the international track and field federation says it will test around 400 samples from last summer's world championships in Paris for THG. If the steroid is as widespread as suspected, numerous medalists could be banned from next summer's Olympics.

As it is, USA Track & Field already has a nightmare on its hands. Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, the world's fastest couple, and global sprint champion Kelli White have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury investigating BALCO, the California nutritional supplement maker that reportedly supplies dozens of top athletes in several sports. That's in addition to the likely doping ban for White, who tested positive for a stimulant in Paris, and the ongoing case of Jerome Young, who was allowed to compete in Sydney after testing positive for steroids in 1999.

Though the USATF this week announced a "zero tolerance" policy with tougher penalties and fines for steroid users, the federation could be decertified by the US Olympic Committee if it doesn't crack down hard and fast on cheaters. "This was tough love from a parent to a high-performing kid," USOC president Bill Martin said, after the committee ordered the federation to come up with a plan dealing with doping, athlete conduct, and image issues by Nov. 17. "Sometimes, you have to take the kid out to the woodshed to get that kid straightened out."

On the clock

The International Olympic Committee's clockers and watchers came away from their latest visit to Athens this week with their usual message to the organizers: Time is getting short. Though venues are being finished at a rapid clip (weightlifting this month and wrestling, judo, rhythmic gymnastics, and table tennis soon) the stadium roof still isn't completed and construction could interfere with upcoming test events in the surrounding complex. More worrisome at the moment is the slowdown on two major transportation projects -- the suburban rail from the airport to the stadium and the tram from downtown to the coastal venues . . . As expected, the USOC's board of directors passed its radical reform package by an all-but-unanimous vote at last weekend's meeting in Cleveland, chopping its membership from 123 to eight (plus the IOC members from the US), eliminating most of its committees and passing a tougher ethics code. Now, it's up to Congress to make the legal changes, which could take months, since the House hasn't even passed a version and the Senate's doesn't comply with IOC requirements. That's why the USOC wanted to make its changes now, hoping they'll serve as a template for the lawmakers . . . Why weren't Sheryl Swoopes and Sue Bird among the first batch of players chosen for the US Olympic women's basketball team this month? Because they can't commit to next spring's training sessions. Swoopes and Bird will be in the mix for the final five spots, though, as will collegians Alana Beard and Diana Taurasi. Already picked are center Lisa Leslie, forwards Tamika Catchings, DeLisha Milton-Jones, and Tina Thompson, and guards Dawn Staley, Shannon Johnson, and Katie Smith. The US men's team will use most of the players from the squad that won this summer's regional qualifier in Puerto Rico. The men's Olympic draw will be Nov. 8. Besides the US, the field includes Angola, Argentina, Australia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, New Zealand, China, Puerto Rico, Serbia-Montenegro, and Spain . . . Favorable draw for the US baseball team, which ended up in the opposite group from Cuba and the Dominican Republic for next week's Olympic qualifier in Panama. The Americans, who are sending a minor league squad managed by Frank Robinson, will play Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and the Bahamas. The top two countries overall get tickets to Athens, where Rawjah could play his next game.

Cold reception

Lots of head-scratching going on among the figure skaters at this week's Skate America in Reading, Pa., where the new, (allegedly) rig-proof scoring system is being used for the first time at a major international competition. Instead of the age-old 6.0 format that ranks competitors by judges' placements, scores are totaled, diving-style. "If they gave me a 20 or a 120, I don't know the difference," shrugged Michael Weiss, who earned a 73.85 while winning the short program. The best thing about the experimental system is that a bad fall in the short program no longer kills a skater's medal chances . . . The US figure skating championships, last held here two years ago, could be back at the FleetCenter in 2007. Boston is one of three finalists, along with Hershey, Pa., and Spokane, Wash. The site will be announced this fall . . . Whether or not the NHL participates (and that won't be known until the league gets a new collective bargaining agreement with the players next year), the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament will have a new look for 2006. Instead of 14 teams, there'll be 12, with no automatic berths for the big countries and no play-in round for the likes of Slovakia and Latvia. This time, the top eight ranked nations (to be determined after next year's world championships) plus host Italy get spots, with the other three decided through qualification tournaments. The women's tournament stays the same (eight teams), with four entrants determined after the world championships . . . No Lance Armstrong, no Tyler Hamilton, no chance for the US cyclists, who failed to win a medal (along with the stunned Italians) at this month's world road championships in Ontario. Top finisher was Dede Barry, who placed eighth in the women's time trial. Spain won three of the 12 Olympic-event medals, going 1-2 in the men's road race and taking the women's time trial.

Looking up

Though they managed just one medal in an Olympic event (silver in the men's eight) at the world championships in Milan, the US rowers are in better shape going into the Games than they were last time, especially in the men's sweep events. Since all three boats earned their Athens slots at the global regatta, men's coach Mike Teti won't have to worry about interrupting his camp to send small boats overseas to qualify. "This time four years ago I was panicked," said Teti, who hopes to have his eight, four, and pair chosen by mid-April and enter them in World Cup races in Europe. The women's pair and eight also qualified, although the eight, who came in as defending champions, had to scramble out of last place after catching a boat-stopping crab after the first third of the race. Though it's likely the Americans eventually will qualify in all 14 events, as they did in 2000, their men's and women's single, men's quad and lightweight double, and women's double all will have to earn theirs at the last-chance regatta next June in Switzerland . . . Fresh off victories at the regional championships (their first double since 1983), the US men's and women's volleyball teams get their Olympic qualifying shot at next month's World Cups in Japan, where the top three get tickets to Athens. The better chance rests with the women, who just missed a medal in Sydney and who knocked off Olympic champion Cuba in the regionals . . . Historic finish by US rhythmic gymnast Mary Sanders, whose 10th-place finish at the world championships was the best-ever by an American. Sanders, a dual citizen who competed for Canada two years ago, was born in Toronto but has an American father who also competed for the US . . . After years of horsefeathers between the feuding US Equestrian Team and USA Equestrian, the USOC finally forced them together in a shotgun marriage as the US Equestrian Federation, whose first meeting (or is it honeymoon?) will be in January in Los Angeles. While it was at it, the USOC took the first step toward dumping the US Taekwondo Union as the sport's governing body for financial irregularities . . . Beijing's official logo for the 2008 Games -- a rubber-legged runner in motion -- has provoked a nose-holding reaction from much of the Chinese public, which considers the calligraphic figure weak-kneed and submissive. "Like a eunuch trembling before his master," sneered one Internet critic.

Material from personal interviews, the US Olympic Committee, international sports federations, national governing bodies and wire services was used in this report.

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