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Goodbye Regina   by Dave Milner 07.18.04

If the story had played out as she'd planned, Regina Jacobs would have left her sport while still on top. At the remarkable age of 40, she would have competed in the Athens Olympic Games this summer, and maybe even won a medal. And if she didn't medal, she would, at her age, at least have been a shoe-in for one of NBC's behind-the-scenes, triumphing-over-adversity stories that they show while the 10,000m is unfolding.

Instead, on Saturday, July 17th, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that Regina Jacobs, the current U.S. 1,500 meter champion was suspended for four years for testing positive for the anabolic steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), first identified in the summer of 2003. USA Track and Field, the national governing body for the sport in the United States , will carry out the sanction.

Jacobs was one of five U.S. athletes who tested positive for THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone, a previously undetected steroid that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency alleged came from BALCO Laboratories, a Burlingame, CA nutritional supplement company. Jacobs was among the athletes listed on a Web site of BALCO founder Victor Conte Jr. as using his 'legal' supplements.

Jacobs tested positive for THG at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Stanford University on June 21, 2003 .  According to the USADA, "Jacobs accepted USADA’s recommended sanction and forfeits all of her results and winnings beginning on the day of the test including her first-place finish in the 1,500m on that day." 

 

Regina Jacobs rubs her noseMaybe it was an admission of guilt, or maybe a realization that, at 44, a comeback after a 4-year competitive hiatus would be almost impossible, but Jacobs announced her retirement from the sport last Thursday.

"Today, I am announcing my retirement from track and field," Jacobs said in a statement released by her attorney on Thursday. "I have enjoyed my collegiate and professional career immensely. It has been an honor to represent my country as an Olympian and world champion."

Well, Regina, many of us now wonder if "honor" is a word you fully comprehend. 

USA Track & Field certainly didn't seem terribly honored to have had Regina represent America. They removed Jacobs' bio from their website (www.usatf.org) some time on Monday.

Jacobs didn't go down quietly.

Jacobs didn't leave the sport without a fight. She hired a high-profile New York attorney, Ed Williams, and filed a federal lawsuit against USATF and USADA, because she felt that under current arbitration rules, her case wouldn't get a fair hearing.

Williams challenged USADA's arbitration policy, saying athletes are being denied access to a more impartial pool of arbitrators. "Their rule is bad because it's a stacked deck against the athletes," Williams said. "USADA gets to write the rules that the arbitrators, who USADA picks, then use to decide cases. What's fair about that?" 

I think my arguments are compelling," Williams told reporters. "On the other hand, I'm taking on the system."

Williams presented his case for challenging arbitration rules two weeks ago, before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. Williams and two opposing lawyers, representing the USADA and USA Track & Field, had 20 minutes to present their oral arguments to a three-judge panel.

Williams lost. On Thursday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals  upheld the dismissal of Jacobs' lawsuit against USA Track & Field and the USADA.

USADA were happy with the outcome. "We are extremely pleased with the Second (Circuit) court decision, which confirms that Ms. Jacobs' lawsuit was baseless," Travis Tygart, USADA's director of legal affairs, said in a statement. "We maintained from the beginning that this lawsuit was absolutely without merit. ... We hope in the future that athletes will not resort to these frivolous attacks on the established process, which is fundamentally fair to all athletes."

A long and illustrious career

Jacobs' career was long and very successful. She was a 4-time member of the US Olympic team (''88, '92, '96, '00), she was a 2-time World Championships 1500m silver medalist ('97, '99). She was also the 1995 and 2003 World Indoor 1500m champion.

What was most remarkable, though, was that when Jacobs set her first world record  - a 3:59.98 indoor 1500m in Boston in February 2003 - she was 39 years old.

Up to the time of her positive test, Jacobs won a staggering 22 U.S. National Championship titles.  She won 15 U.S outdoor championships titles: eleven at 1500m ('87, '89, '92, '94, '97, '96, '97, '99, '00, '01, '02), three at 5000 ('98-'00), and one at 800m ('01). Indoors, she was three times the U.S. Mile champion ('95, '00, '02) and twice the winner of the 3000m ('99, '01). She was even a 2-time U.S. 4K Cross-Country Champion ('01, '02).

Didn't we know all along?

To some, the news of Jacobs' disgraceful exit from track has come as a shock.  After all, many considered her a pillar in the community; heavily involved in promoting kids' fitness in the Bay Area and always happy to sign autographs for young fans.

I remember meeting Jacobs at the 1998 NYC Marathon expo while I was in college in New York. At the time, like her, one of my goals was to break 4 minutes for 1500m (a goal still unrealized).  She signed a photograph, and wrote on it "Dave, Sub-4:00 is just around the corner." What I now realize is that she meant Sub-4:00 is just behind the door of the medicine cabinet.

But the news that she wasn't playing by the rules does not come as a surprise to many followers of the sport. There were always questions as Jacobs' times improved with age. She was, after all, beating two clocks, the one at trackside and her biological clock.

Jacobs credited the second-wind portion of her career to the discovery of low levels of iron in her blood. At age 30, armed with a better diet and iron supplements, she found a consistency she previously lacked.

But, for years, the running community has had its suspicions about Jacobs, though solid evidence never surfaced. Jacobs helped fuel the chatter with her curious excuses for skipping major events, either after drug testing at a U.S. championship or where sophisticated drug testing was sure to be in place -- namely the 1995 World Championships, 2000 Sydney Olympics and last year's World Cross Country Championships.

In 2000, After a brilliant spring and summer, and a double victory (1,500m and 5,000m) at the U.S. Olympic trials in Sacramento, Jacobs got sick and pulled out of the Sydney Games.

"This is not only sad at face value," wrote Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, somewhat prophetically, at the time, "but allowed much of the world track press to suspect that Jacobs was pulling out to avoid the [newly-implemented] Sydney EPO test. It's not fair, but that's the way it is. And it might just be Jacobs' legacy."

But Jacobs, who took 20 drug tests since 2001 alone, never failed one. Until last year.

No pity for Jacobs

There hasn't been much sympathy for Jacobs from competitors and opposing coaches -- at least from those willing to talk.

Suzy Favor Hamilton, runner-up to Jacobs eight times in the 1,500 meters at the national championships, including 2003, has declined to comment on her rival. But her coach, Peter Tegen, has been blunt about Jacobs' positive test.

"My first reaction to the news was, "'Wow! Well, that would explain a lot,''' he said.

In a December press statement, Jacobs said officials "seek to deny me the opportunity to compete in the upcoming Olympics on the grounds that something I have never heard of, and which was not on any list of banned substances, is supposedly somehow 'related' to something on the IOC list of prohibited substances.'' 

That thing she had never heard of was found in her urine.

She refers to the "related substances'' portion of the international drug code. It's intended to be a catch-all that punishes athletes using new drugs, not yet recognized by the IAAF (the sport's world governing body), that are still chemically related to banned substances.

Stop for a moment, and think. If you catch your kids using a new kind of crack that the local narcotics detectives have never seen before, do you still ground them?

THG is a derivative of the banned steroid gestrinone. "It's an anabolic steroid by definition,'' Dr. Gary Wadler, a performance-enhancing-drug expert from New York, said of the new drug. "End of story. It's as precisely known as well as we can know anything in chemistry.''

The new record holders

USA Track & Field has already stripped Jacobs of the U.S. indoor 1500m record she set last year. The American record has been returned to Mary Decker-Slaney (left), at 4:00.8, set in 1980. If the IAAF follows suit, the world record will be returned to Doina Melinte of Romania at 4:00.27, set in 1990. Thus, the 4:00-barrier for 1500m remains unbroken on the boards.

But at the time of writing this, Jacob still holds the U.S. outdoor record for 1000m (2:31.80 in 1999) and 5000m (14:45.35 in 2000), and she also holds the U.S Indoor record for  3000m (8:39.14 in 1999).

Let us assume, just for a moment, hypothetically, that Jacobs has been cheating for the last five years. I'm sure Jacobs was as pure as the driven snow right up to her positive THG test, but humor me. If, hypothetically, you understand, one was able to establish that she had been cheating for the last five years there would be three 'new' American record holders.

The 'new' outdoor 1,000m record holder would be Suzy Favor Hamilton, who clocked 2:33.93 in 1995. The outdoor 5000m record holder would be Deena Drossin-Kastor (right), who clocked 14:51.62 in 2000. Oh yeah, she would be crowned 2000 U.S champion too. And the indoor 3000m record would return to Lynn Jennings, who clocked 8:40.45 in 1990

Jacobsgate: The Real Victims

I'm sure we'll learn more as this THG melée fully unravels, but if you want to put a faces to the victims in this scandal it's probably best to start with Suzy Favor-Hamilton. You know; the hot, perky, all-American blonde who posed for her own swimsuit calendar a few years back. The crowd favorite who, time after time, would come in second, a few strides adrift of Jacobs, just as in the picture below at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials.

If anyone should have a beef with Jacobs, it is her. After all, if it were not for Jacobs, Favor-Hamilton would have been indisputably the best female miler in America.

And now that Jacobs has been exposed as a pharmaceutical champion, I'd say Suzy has every right to be furious about the confirmation of her darkest suspicions.

Favor-Hamilton was smartly advised not to say a word about this issue until Jacobs had exhausted her appeals and the dust had settled. But now Jacobs has bowed out of track, probably for good, and the sentencing has been handed down, perhaps Suzy will be more outspoken in the near future.

We can now safely assume that Jacobs was cheating. The question is for how long? After all, shoplifters, adulterers, and other wrong-doers rarely get caught the first time, right? The same is - I'm sure - true of athletes who cheat.

We can reasonably assert that Jacobs cheated Favor-Hamilton out of a national title last summer. But we can only guess how many other championship wins Jacobs might have cost her.

She may well have robbed Favor Hamilton of colossal sums of money and fame. "Just do the math, implores Sports Illustrated's Mike Fish. "Eight times Jacobs has edged out the runner-up Favor Hamilton in the 1,500 at the national championships, almost always letting her set the pace and then out-kicking Favor Hamilton late in the final lap."

USA Track and Field Championships
1,500 meters
Year Winner Runner-up
2003 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton
2002 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton
2001 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton
2000 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton
1997 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton
1995 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton
1994 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton
1989 Regina Jacobs Suzy Favor Hamilton

It may have been the case that Nike, who sponsored both runners, told Suzy not to publicly air her suspicions about Jacobs. Maybe we'll find out now Jacobs is out of the loop.

Jacobs certainly got bigger checks from Nike, but Nike simply negotiated contracts based on the results. Favor Hamilton has won only three 1,500-meter titles at the U.S. championships-- all when Jacobs wasn't in the race - and Jacobs has one more than she can count on her fingers. 

But give Suzy (left) the 11 national titles (that one might impute she deserves) to go with her cover-girl looks and today she might rival Mia Hamm, or maybe Anna Kournikova, for commercial time and endorsements. 

There's no telling the sum of lost money we're talking about. Just in Nike bonuses, alone, it's $150,000. Unfortunately for Suzy, there's no way of getting either the money or the titles back.

The other primary victim is from across the pond.

Kelly HolmesBritish track star Kelly Holmes believes that Regina Jacobs should be stripped of the World indoor 1500m gold  medal she won in 2003. Jacobs' positive test came just three months after taking the world indoor title in Birmingham last year, 0.99 seconds ahead of Holmes. Jacobs, quite rightly, believes she should be crowned World Indoor Champion.

"If somebody gets done within a year, whatever they have achieved in that year should be scratched," said Holmes. "That's because there is no proof that they were or weren't on drugs before or after the event."

Unortunately, for Holmes, as well as Favor-Hamilton, Jennings, Slaney, and Kastor, Jacobs' world record, world indoor title, and the other records she set before her positive test in 2003, will still stand - even though her those performances lie under a dark cloud of suspicion.

Holmes, who has competed been the top female British middle-distance runner for 12 years, admits she gets disheartened when the achievements of clean athletes are undermined by drugs cheats.

"Athletes like myself put 100% commitment and emotion into the sport," the world silver 800m medallist told BBC Sport.

"So you do get disillusioned when you hear a positive test. It could be someone you ran against and then it's unfair. But it's no good standing on the line speculating, because unless the proof is there, there is nothing you can do about it."

Anti-doping authorities want clean athletes to persevere as they clean up the sport. "Clean athletes should be motivated by knowing that Olympic sport has committed its resources and expertise to leveling the playing field by eliminating drugs, including undetectable substances from competition,” said Terry Madden, USADA Chief Executive Officer.   

Things are getting better, and the gap  is narrowing, but it seems to me that the bad pharmacists are always a step ahead of the good pharmacists.

Herb Elliot, the former men's mile world record holder from Australia believes drug cheats should be jailed, and I'm inclined to agree. After all, aren't they guilty of fraud on a massive scale? "I think it's time to stop messing around with the drug issue and legislate it as a criminal offence and put people in jail for it," Elliott told Fox News.

Before last week's Olympic trials, Favor Hamilton's coach Peter Tegen said he wasn't expecting to see Jacobs at the meet. But even if she was allowed to compete, Tegen questioned whether, mentally, she would be the same runner.

"Once you've been caught and no longer have that crutch, it probably will take away from an athlete who has done that stuff before,'' he said. "You're making yourself vulnerable psychologically when you don't have that magic pill anymore.''

Tegen's comment begs the question: Was another high profile female athlete whose last name begins with 'J', forced to hastily clean up her act, missing that psychological crutch in Sacramento? Who knows?

Suzy Favor Hamilton did not compete in the finals of the 1,500m at the Olympic trials last week due to a strained hamstring, but could still attend the Olympics because she is the only athlete in the event finals to achieve an Olympic “A” standard time. She earned a mark of 4:01.69 in Rome in 2003. If none of the athletes that finished in the top 3 at the trials get the mark by August 9, Favor Hamilton, may be Athens-bound. One thing we do know for sure: Regina Jacobs won't be there.

. . . .

Emmons, M. (2004). She can't outrun drug allegation: Regina Jacobs' Career Ending in Turmoil. San Jose Mercury-News, March 25, 2004. available at www.mercurynews.com

Fish, M. (2003). Second Guessing: Track star left wondering about rival's edge in marquee races. SI.com, November 25, 2003. available at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com

Gambaccini, P. (2004). Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton. Fastwomen.com, May 10, 2004. available at http://www.fast-women.com

Holt, S. (2004). Holmes seeks Jacobs justice. BBC Sport. February 27, 2004. available at http://news.bbc.co.uk

Layden, T. (2000). Ready, set, go. Who's in good form as track competition looms. CNNSI.com, September 21, 2000. available at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com

Phillips, S. (2004). Jail drug cheats: Elliott. Fox Sports (Australia). July 19, 2004. available at http://foxsports.news.com.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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