Trying to Clean a Stained Reputation

Asmae Leghzaoui, right, works out with her husband, Mohammed Ar-Ar. Leghzaoui just finished serving a two-year suspension for taking EPO.
Asmae Leghzaoui, right, works out with her husband, Mohammed Ar-Ar. Leghzaoui just finished serving a two-year suspension for taking EPO. (By Scott S. Hamrick For The Washington Post)
By Dan Steinberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 3, 2005

WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- When Asmae Leghzaoui approached the starting line of the Sallie Mae 10K race in the District seven weeks ago, she was afraid. Afraid to see how her body would respond in her first race after serving a two-year suspension for taking EPO, one of the sporting world's most notorious performance-enhancing drugs. Afraid, too, that others would think she was still a drug cheat, would not believe her when she said she was now clean, that she made a horrible mistake, that she was sorry and wanted a second chance.

Her performance, as it turned out, required no worrying. Leghzaoui, a 28-year-old Moroccan, won the Sallie Mae in a course-record time, and then ripped through the American spring road-racing circuit. In six starts she won five races and set four course records.

Public perception, though, has been less yielding. When Leghzaoui won the Lilac Bloomsday 12K race in Spokane, Wash., runner-up Kathy Butler told the Spokesman-Review she thought EPO users should be banned for life, not courted by race officials. And in advance of tomorrow's Freihofer's Run For Women 5K in Albany, N.Y., Leghzaoui's status as an invited professional athlete caused four high-profile runners to withdraw. The controversy attracted media attention from as far away as England and Australia and prompted race organizers to bring in a team of drug testers from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a relatively rare step for a U.S. road race.

Outside the small community of distance running fans, Leghzaoui (pronounced LUG-zow-ee) is virtually unknown in the United States; neither her suspension nor her return attracted headlines until last week's developments. And yet, at a time when performance-enhancing drugs are debated on sports-talk radio and in Congress, when bona fide track stars such as Kelli White and Alvin Harrison are serving EPO suspensions of their own, Leghzaoui's case offers a look at the debates that could greet the return of proven users. She passed four random tests during her suspension, and said she wants to apologize to the running community and try to clear her name, a task some have said is impossible for any drug user.

The critics say they understand Leghzaoui has served her time and they don't object to her participation, but they want to discourage other road races from inviting, promoting or paying the expenses of athletes who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

"I don't think you should promote convicted drug cheats," said Dutch agent Pieter Langerhorst, whose wife and client, Lornah Kiplagat, was one of the athletes who withdrew from tomorrow's race. "Before you put a needle in, you should think about the consequences, and this is one of the consequences."

Leghzaoui said she did not think about those consequences when she injected the endurance-boosting synthetic hormone into her arm in early 2003, did not think of anything except being able to run faster, leading to a positive test at the world cross-country championships that spring and the two-year ban.

While she was serving her suspension, Leghzaoui gave birth to her first child -- a daughter, Mayar -- and continued to train; she ran 40 minutes on a treadmill several hours before she gave birth, and resumed serious training within a month. Her agent, Hussein Makké, said he agreed to work with her again under the condition that she promise to be clean and talk publicly about her story; Makké has tried to attract media interest in Leghzaoui's apology for several months.

"I feel guilt for what I have done to the sport, to my family and to myself," said Morocco's Asmae Leghzaoui, who has won five races and set four course records since returning from her two-year drug suspension seven weeks ago.( - THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Which is why Makké and Leghzaoui's husband and coach, Mohammed Ar-Ar, sat with the 5-foot tall, 95-pound athlete in a small Pennsylvania office this week and together translated Leghzaoui's words.

"I feel guilt, I feel guilt for what I have done to the sport, to my family and to myself," she said. "I hate the time I used it, I hate who's using it. . . . I sat down with myself. I said the mother, when her son makes a mistake, she punishes him. Then, if he accepts the punishment, he says 'I'm sorry, mom, I admit what I have done.' This is what I felt. I take my guilt. When I come back to competition, I'm saying sorry to everybody."

Leghzaoui switched from Arabic to halting English: "Give me another chance."

Obsessed

Leghzaoui's parents -- observant Muslims living in Fes -- objected to the idea of women baring their arms and legs to run, so during high school she carried her books in her arms and stuffed her book bag with running clothes and running shoes. First her high school coach and later a club coach called her parents and explained their daughter's talent, and as she began competing in national events her parents gradually dropped their objections.


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company