Early in the Games, on the morning after Ian Thorpe touched the wall first to give Australia a stunning gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle, one of the more hysterical hometown newspapers screamed out a headline that said, "It's Our Pool."
A week later, there was a definite question of ownership. At the conclusion of a memorable week of swimming, the United States had asserted its usual dominance. The Americans won 33 medals in all, 14 of them gold. No other country won more than five gold medals.
You'd think it would be enough. Then again, this is swimming, where anyone who bursts onto the international scene and wins major races becomes not a hero, but a suspect. Unless, of course, that person happens to be an American.
The two biggest surprises of the swimming competition were from the Netherlands. Inge de Bruijn won gold in all three of her sprint events, breaking the world record in each. She has now set 11 world records since breaking through as the world's premier female swimmer four months ago.
Pieter van der Hoogenband stole the show in the men's sprints, upsetting Thorpe in the 200 meters and dethroning Russia's Alexander Popov in the 100. Both Dutch champions were allowed about five minutes of glory before the accusations began to fly.
Richard Quick, the U.S. women's swim coach, said he was convinced there were people on drugs at the Olympics. He said he wasn't pointing fingers at the Dutch, but what else were we to think? Surely he wasn't referring to the plodding sprinters from Equatorial Guinea. De Bruijn has been forced to defend herself against drug innuendo since she began breaking records.
On Wednesday night, in the news conference after the men's 100, a writer from the New York Times put it point-blank to van der Hoogenband: "Given the insufficiency of IOC drug-testing procedures, can you guarantee you're clean?"
Van der Hoogenband showed remarkable restraint, under the circumstances. "I have to pee every day and yesterday I had to do it twice," he said. "We are swimmers and we have rules. You have to start on the blocks and you have to touch the wall and you don't take drugs."
At that point, American Gary Hall leaned across the table and came to the Dutchman's aid. "Just because somebody swims fast, you can't say they're on drugs," he said. It was a nice moment, one swimmer sticking up for the other. Hall is a bit of a wild man, but he has come across as a voice of reason here.
Two nights later, after Hall and Anthony Ervin shared gold in the 50, with van den Hoogenband settling for bronze, a Dutch journalist asked, "Has any swimming coach made any remarks about the use of doping such as they do when a Dutchman wins?"
Now we were in a battle of dueling sports journalists. Maybe they should subject some of us to those "insufficient IOC drug tests." But you had to give the Dutch journo credit. He had a valid point. Why is it that the Dutch champions have to answer questions about drugs, but no one ever raises them when an American wins?
The U.S. is the one winning most of the medals. The Americans broke two world, eight U.S. and 11 Olympic records here. Are they above suspicion? One of Quick's chief proteges, Misty Hyman, knocked four seconds off her season's best time in winning a gold medal. She wasn't forced to defend herself in a packed news conference. Neither was Megan Quann or Brooke Bennett or Tom Dolan or Lenny Krayzelburg.
I'm not saying the Americans are cheating. But it gets tiresome when every foreign athlete who beats a U.S. swimmer is automatically suspect. I've been a Jenny Thompson fan for years. But whenever she loses an individual race, there's this lingering sense that she was cheated. When asked about Quick's comment that the Games weren't clean, she could have taken the high road. Instead, she added to the suspicion.
The fact is, there is very little way to know who is clean any more. Drug testing means little nowadays. The IOC, fearing false tests and litigation, set the bar very high for Sydney. They have no reliable test for EPO, which gives athletes an oxygen boost. They aren't testing at all for blood doping or human growth hormone. The new short-acting, water-based steroids are extremely hard to detect.
An athlete would have to be very careless, or a Bulgarian weightlifter, to get caught nowadays. If athletes cheat, they're smart enough to use drugs that are hard to detect, or they stop using them well in advance of testing. So what we're left with is constant suspicion and scant proof, which puts a shroud over every endurance event at the Olympics.
It becomes hard for an objective sports fan to fully enjoy the Games. You want to revel in the achievements of the athletes, to rejoice in the purity of competition. But in the back of your mind, you're always wondering if things are on the up and up. You start to wonder if there's any such thing as a pure athlete or an untarnished story.
Sure enough, the U.S. Olympic movement received a hard blow here today, when the International Amateur Athletic Federation confirmed that world shot put champion C.J. Hunter tested positive for steroids at the Bislett Games in July, forcing him to withdraw from the Olympics. When Hunter withdrew a month ago, he cited a knee injury as the reason.
Hunter is the husband of Marion Jones, the heroine of these Games and an American. Everything changes now. As Jones continues her quest for an unprecedented five gold medals, she'll be besieged with questions about her husband's steroid use.
She'll become the Michelle Smith of these Games. Smith was the Irish swimmer who came out of nowhere to win three gold medals in Atlanta. She never tested positive for drugs, but her achievements remain tainted, largely because she was married to a Dutch discus thrower who had been kicked out of his sport for using performance-enhancing drugs. Jones becomes a suspect now. No doubt, much of the world swimming community is laughing at the thought.