New year. Same old explanation.Another sports scandal unfolds. The latest athlete under suspicion takes a seat behind a microphone as the lights of video cameras glare. With both eyes focused on a sheet of paper, he or she performs a well-rehearsed speech before a captive, but increasingly skeptical, audience. The athlete pauses for effect.”I am more committed than ever to getting to the bottom of all this,” the athlete says. “I am looking forward to … having the opportunity to prove my innocence. It is my sincere hope that once I am exonerated I can rejoin the … sport I love.”Were these words mouthed by embattled cycling team star Floyd Landis, in the wake of the newest bombshell that the Tour de France winner’s urine sample taken after Stage 17 included synthetic testosterone? Maybe they’re from U.S. track star and 100-meter world record-holder Justin Gatlin, who continues to say he’s clean despite testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Perhaps they came from former Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro. He still struggles to explain how he failed a steroid test in 2005, mere months after he famously wagged his finger during a congressional committee hearing to proclaim his innocence.These words could be anyone’s. They were uttered, however, by suspended cyclist and Landis’ former Phonak team member Tyler Hamilton, who, in November 2004, told The Associated Press blood doping charges against him were false. Sadly, the same story continues. Athletes continue to protest their innocence with hollow explanations and ridiculous claims that even the most gullible have a hard time believing. Playing dumb and skirting responsibility isn’t fooling anyone. Excuse me while I roll my eyes. I’d like to believe in Floyd Landis, the down-to-earth rider who won the admiration of a nation for his exploits in this year’s Tour. I’d like to believe the unusual spike in his testosterone levels was, as he intimated, the result of thyroid medication, the cortisone shots he took to combat his deteriorating hip, or the Jack Daniel’s he consumed the night before the race. I’d like to subscribe to the conspiracy theory that anti-American testers somehow contaminated Landis’ sample. Such a story is almost as compelling as Cuban high-jumper Javier Sotomayor’s repeated claim he tested positive for cocaine because both the CIA and Cuban Mafia set him up. (“I’ve only seen that substance in the movies,” Sotomayor told the AP in 1999.) It seems, however, that Landis’ unparalleled Stage 17 performance was the result of grit, determination – and science. I don’t believe Sotomayor, either. Hamilton, a former CU-Boulder skier and Olympic cycling gold medalist, blamed his failed test on a mysterious unborn twin. While Landis’ story is far less outlandish, it looks like he is about to follow in Hamilton’s tire tracks. We’ll learn Landis’ fate once results of his B sample are released this weekend. Cycling, a sport in which 58 riders were implicated in a recent doping ring, according to the New York Times, is reeling. Four of the top five finishers behind Lance Armstrong in the 2005 Tour de France were out of the 2006 race – and Bud Selig thought he had a public relations nightmare. I’d like to believe Gatlin’s coach, who told The AP the sprinter was done in by vengeful masseuse Christopher Whetstine, who rubbed testosterone cream on the athlete. Such a tale sure would make compelling big-screen fodder. I hope first-ballot Hall of Famer Palmeiro did take a tainted vitamin injection, and didn’t knowingly cheat the game and the fans. Or that Barry Bonds was truly convinced his trainer was handing him flaxseed oil. Optimism sure is easier than acknowledging that America’s Game is being destroyed by suspicion and doubt. I’d like to believe that tennis player Petr Korda really did ingest the banned substance nandrolone from eating veal from steroid-enhanced calves. Or that an Australian kayaker really did test positive for two steroids because he drank his brother-in-law’s steroid-laced carton of orange juice? Those are their stories, and they’re sticking to them – at the very least they should earn creativity points.I’d like to think people are innocent until proven guilty. I’d like to believe in the sanctity and credibility of the sports world. But the next time I see an athlete look right into the camera and vehemently deny any wrongdoing, I won’t bother pushing “Record” on my VCR. Why? Because I’ll be hearing the excuses again real soon.I’ve been deceived so many times that I don’t know what to believe. I wonder how much more of this I can take.Jon Maletz, aka “The Hammer,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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