NEW YORK – The best way for our Olympic athletes to represent the United States in Athens is to do something simple.
Do no drugs. Do no steroids. Do nothing that might result in suspicion, scandal or medal stripping. Do nothing between now and August that could bring shame on our country.
"If that happens," judoist Jimmy Pedro said here at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit last weekend, "then the world will think America is all about winning at any cost, whether in war or in athletics.
"It is important our athletes compete clean," Pedro continued. "That is what America is about, the land of opportunity. Work hard and climb your way to the top. It is not about cutting corners and cheating your way to the top."
Outside of a terrorist attack the worst thing that can happen to the United States in these games isn't losing. It isn't falling short of the USOC's goal of 100 medals. It wouldn't even be failing to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" a single time.
It would be a drug scandal, reaffirming the inaccurate – but growing – world sentiment that our country is about misplaced priorities. That the big, bad Americans, already blessed with the most money and best training facilities, still feel the need to cheat to win.
"It will harm our image and will contribute to the image, whether deserved or undeserved, that the United States is a bully and unethical," Sen. John McCain told the San Jose Mercury News.
So you want to represent America, as all our athletes say they do? Then do nothing.
"When I get sick I don't take any drugs," said sprinter Maurice Greene, a vocal critic of some of his track teammates who have spent too long in suspicious steroid circles. "None. I drink orange juice and get some sleep."
This is exactly what we need. Greene, like so many of our athletes, gets it.
He may have lost the crown of world's fastest man last year to fellow American Tim Montgomery, but it is Montgomery who is in the midst of the BALCO scandal now, Montgomery who has chickened out of explaining himself to the public, Montgomery who is an athlete that every American should fear in Athens.
Steroids are all over sports, but it is different with the Olympics. If an NFL lineman or a major league outfielder is caught, the shame solely is on them. It is wrong. It isn't fair. But really, they don't owe us anything.
On the other hand, the Olympics are about representing us. When they don the red, white and blue they go out and tell the world what we are about. What our government is about. What our military is about. What our values are.
It is a lot to ask, but to whom much is given, much is expected.
An athlete using steroids right now is in it only for himself, his endorsements, his P.R. teams.
He or she is flat-out pathetic.
Maybe in a simpler time this wasn't such an important issue. But whether or not you support the war in Iraq, there is no debating that it has impacted the worldview of our country.
In these politically charged times, sending a friendly, fair team (not necessarily a winning one) to Athens is more important than ever.
"We want to win," USOC president Bill Martin said. "But we want to win the right way."
And with clean athletes we should win plenty. But one punk with a positive test can ruin it all.
Knowing this the USOC has a zero tolerance policy toward steroids. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has enacted new standards for disqualification, including "non-analytical positive" finds based on convincing evidence and not just drug tests.
Sen. McCain has helped the USOC gain access to some federal findings in the BALCO case and has all but declared this a national security issue.
Fortunately, just about every athlete echoes the sentiment. But talk is cheap. And there is only so much the USOC and USADA can do. Showing up in Athens clean is up to our athletes.
"No one can make you put something in your body," Greene said. "There is no excuse. None."
And so there should be no forgiveness for the athlete that fails us, shames us, damages our country.
If you really want to represent America then winning the gold isn't the best way.
Doing nothing is.
- Tim Montgomery