ATHENS, Aug. 29 -- Though a record number of athletes -- 22 -- were sent home from these Olympic Games because of drug violations, not a single American was among them. On the heels of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) drug scandal, the lack of American positives for performance-enhancing drugs is viewed as a victory almost on par with the 103 medals the U.S. team won here.
U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, who earned gold, silver and bronze medals, said American track and field athletes, hounded by questions about the BALCO scandal during the July Olympic trials, came to Athens hoping to create different headlines.
"Every sport has its dark clouds," Gatlin said before Sunday's Closing Ceremonies at Olympic Stadium. "Everybody steps out of the lines sometimes. I know our team sat down and had a meeting, and we wanted to go out and win with class . . . [and] show the world . . . that you don't have to take drugs to be successful."
Even international officials who historically have been critical of U.S. efforts to fight doping described the lack of U.S. positives as encouraging, even though it's unclear -- as it is for every nation -- whether U.S. athletes weren't cheating or simply weren't getting caught. The BALCO scandal has provided disturbing evidence that some athletes and their handlers invest considerable time in devising ways to beat standard drug tests.
The final numbers aren't in, either. The last of the 3,500 samples collected are still being analyzed.
"There are not 10,500 saints in the Olympic Village," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said. "You always have some cheaters in every group of human beings. . . . We'd be naive to think [the 22 positives] was the whole picture."
Even so, Rogge and other international officials characterized the plethora of positives overall as an indication not that more athletes used drugs during this Games, but rather that an unprecedented drug crackdown proved successful.
"The IOC is pleased with the progress made in the fight against doping," Rogge said. "I believe it is a consequence of the effort that started in Salt Lake City" during the 2002 Winter Games.
During that Olympiad, seven athletes were disqualified for using drugs, a substantial number considering that only five athletes tested positive at every other Winter Games between 1924 and 1998 combined.
The previous record for Summer Olympics positives -- 12 -- was set in 1984, although between five and nine positives mysteriously disappeared after that Olympics, officials later admitted, and were never recovered. Nine athletes tested positive at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, while only two positives were recorded at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In Athens, drug-testing officials for the first time administered random, unannounced tests before and during the Games, seeking out athletes in the Olympic Village, at training venues out of Athens and even, in some cases, in athletes' neighborhoods when they had returned home.
In previous Summer Games, only the top four finishers in each event were tested immediately after competitions, presumably allowing savvy athletes to take substances around their competitions.
This year's new approach resulted in one of the biggest busts in Olympic history. Greek stars Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou withdrew from the Games after failing to make themselves available for two out-of-competition tests.
Tests were also targeted toward athletes in sports that have a history of positives, according to Arne Ljungqvist, the chair of the IOC's Doping Commission. The positives resulted in the stripping of seven medals, including three golds. On Sunday, U.S. cyclist Erin Mirabella learned she had been elevated from fourth place to a bronze medal after Colombia's Maria Luisa Calle Williams tested positive for a banned stimulant.
There was one U.S. drug positive during the Olympic testing period, but it wasn't for a performance-enhancing substance and did not result in a disqualification. Sprinter John Capel, who had been slated to run in the 4x100 relay heats, tested positive for marijuana. He was removed from the relay even though he remained eligible to compete.
Before the Games, a host of American track and field athletes found themselves entangled with drug positives or allegations from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which took over drug-testing in the United States soon after the 2000 Summer Games.
Former world champion Kelli White acknowledged using a host of banned drugs and accepted a two-year ban. U.S. champions in the shot put (Kevin Toth) and 1,500 meters (Regina Jacobs) accepted bans for using the designer steroid THG. Tim Montgomery, the world record holder in the 100, faces a lifetime ban for alleged drug allegations, as do two-time Olympian Chryste Gaines, 2000 Olympic silver medalist Alvin Harrison and 400 runner Michelle Collins.
"The widely publicized BALCO stories and the wide knowledge of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in American sport today has had an effect here," Ljungqvist said. "I believe Olympic sport in the United States has been cleaned up considerably compared to previous years. . . . I see that as a hopeful sign."