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The U.S. Olympic Committee "has something to answer for" says Richard Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, after documents were released showing more than 100 U.S. athletes were sent into Olympic and world competitions after failing drug tests.

Among the athletes who were let off the hook with warnings rather than suspensions were Carl Lewis, track and field's most decorated Olympian, and tennis star Mary Joe Fernandez, according to the documents dated from 1988 to 2000.

"It's what many people suspected about the U.S. Olympic Committee, that it was being covered up," Pound said.

A USOC spokesman, Darryl Seibel, maintained there were no "supressed or concealed results of drug tests."

But an investigative story in the Orange Country Register and Sports Illustrated, based upon the confidential files of Dr. Wade Exum, the former USOC director for drug control, shows that USOC executives frequently excused positive tests as "inadvertent use" instead of imposing suspensions.

In one blatant case in 1988, USOC executive director Baaron Pittenger personally sent notification of a positive test for three stimulants to Lewis's training partner Joe DeLoach, and the news that it was cause for disqualification from the 1988 Olympic team. But a handwritten note on the same sheet told DeLoach "this case has been excused as inadvertent use. Good luck."

Lewis and teammate Andre Phillips also received similar notifications. After they tested positive at the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, they were told they'd get off with warnings.

All three won gold medals on the track at the Seoul Olympics, which they would have missed had they been suspended. Lewis was handed the 100-metre gold medal that was stripped from Canada's Ben Johnson.

Johnson could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Morris Chrobotek, who was Johnson's agent during his comeback bid, said the exposure of so many cases verified his claim that Johnson wasn't the only unclean sprinter in Seoul. "All the stuff I'd been yelling about was legit," he said. "I knew he [Dr. Exum]had information that would shake the sports world."

Donovan Bailey, the Canadian who won gold in the 100 metres and the sprint relay at Atlanta in 1996, said he had a love-hate relationship with Americans. "Ultimately, what I love about America is that they want to win. But they want to win at all costs. There have always been rumours, rumours about a million things. Sometimes, it's satisfying when it comes out."

Pound said there isn't a country or a sport that can claim to be free of doping problems.

"But what we learn from this is that the USOC was not prepared to enforce rules on its stars. In some cases, they chose to forgive a positive result as inadvertent, before even an appeal. It looks pretty perfunctory since all the letters [regarding failed tests]were copied to The Athletics Congress [then the governing body of U.S. track] And TAC was supposed to have the responsibility of informing the International Amateur Athletics Federation -- and they didn't or else we'd have seen suspensions from that end."

In the case of Lewis's positive test -- not for one drug but three, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine -- he did not declare at the time of the test he was taking anything for a cold. The USOC letter to him said the amount of stimulant in his system "may have been sufficient to enhance performance and create an advantage over your competitors."

Nevertheless, Pittenger wrote, "I am pleased to announce that, in my review of your appeal in conjunction with our panel of experts [the positive test]be treated as a warning rather than a suspension."

Pound said he thinks "the USOC has some explaining to do for calling it inadvertent for a guy who had four gold medals [in Los Angeles in 1984] He knew perfectly well what the rules were and to keep these things out of his system.

"You are responsible for what you take into your body. The argument of 'inadvertent' is irrelevant. The offence is the presence of a banned substance in your system. There's not much case for 'inadvertent' short of sabotage -- if Nazi frogmen abduct you and inject you with drugs against your will."

Lewis's lawyer told the Register that the USOC phoned Lewis to tell him about his positive test in 1988, "but Carl did nothing wrong. There was never intent [to cheat]. . . He was never told, 'You violated the rules.' "

The leniency toward marquee athletes underlines the need for independent testing, said Paul Melia, the acting chief of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. "It's difficult to comment on what USOC's motivations might be. Obviously, there was an emotional attachment that the USOC and national sport bodies had to some athletes. There was room for conflict of interest and public skepticism. It's good to have more independent agencies now, and a set of procedures that are public and open to scrutiny."

The exposure of these doping cases is the latest blow to the scandal-plagued USOC. Eight top officials have resigned this year. Their actions stemmed from conflict-of-interest findings against former chief executive officer Lloyd Ward. The USOC also lost its president, its chief operating officer, its marketing and compliance officers, and three board members. A Senate committee is demanding restructure and reform.

Exum had planned to use his documents in a racial discrimination and wrongful termination suit against the USOC, but the case was dismissed in federal court last week.