Johnette Howard

Johnette Howard

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 22 2000 5:30 PM

Johnette Howard

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SYDNEY, Australia—So, I went to weightlifting yesterday thinking I was going to cover the sweet story about 17-year-old Cheryl Haworth, the 300-pound U.S. weightlifter who won a bronze medal, but a ridiculous one-act comedy eclipsed her instead. One day after the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team was kicked out of the Olympics for hitting the limit of having three lifters test positive for drugs, Qatar officials announced the last-second withdrawals two of the eight Bulgarian lifters they imported en masse to compete for the glory and honor of Qatar (and, of course, some nice financial incentives).

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It would've been nice if the two lifters in question, 77-kilogram world champion Saelem Nayef Badr and Sulyan Abbas Nader, just came out and said, "Our timing tonight is incredibly conspicuous because we're all using the same performance-enhancing drugs, and these damn tests are doing a far better job of snagging who's juiced than we ever expected!"

But I suppose that's a bit much to ask.

Still, the Qataris definitely could've picked a better excuse than the one they released just minutes before Friday's competition was about to begin. Trying hard to suppress a smirk, a pressroom officer stood in the middle of the media workroom, asked for everyone's attention, and said that the official reason given for the Qatar lifters' withdrawals was, "They went out to dinner last night outside the athletes village without permission and caught a bad case of …"

Droll pause.

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"… diarrhea."

Ho ho! Cue the roaring laughter.

Nobody ever said we sportswriters weren't cynical beasts. And anything that feeds the monster within us, like yesterday's news did, creates a weird sort of euphoria. When I looked around the pressroom immediately afterward, I noticed some guys were typing a little faster. Their eyes suddenly seemed bright. When they rose to get a stat sheet there was a hop in their step. But not for the reasons you might think.

Journalists always get accused of loving news like this because it sells newspapers. And quite often that's not it at all. It's much more personal and petty than that. It's blatant self-interest: We hate being made into dupes by the no-neck weightlifters who get to an Olympic year and suddenly start hoisting 30 kilograms more than they ever did in their lives or some swimmer who suddenly shaves a second off his best time in a sprint. We hate that we can't prove it. So, when something happens that even obliquely suggests some cheats might be on the run—or, better yet, when they get caught red-handed, tripped up by their own stupidity, whatever it takes—we're gratified someone did what we couldn't. Has nothing to do with selling newspapers. The Bulgarians have been doing this for years.

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"The athletes were crying and very upset," the president of the Qatar weightlifting federation told us.

Of course they were upset. They always are. Can't you just imagine two cheats looking at each other and saying, "I thought you read the label?"

"Me?! I thought you said you did!"

There's still nine days of the Olympics to go, but it made my opening week. It really did.