By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fresh allegations of widespread doping in international athletics will eventually help the sport emerge from its eternal cloud of suspicion and show Americans are performing at the highest level without cheating, top U.S. runners say.
No U.S. athletes have been linked to confidential data released by a whistleblower indicating suspected widespread blood doping in international track and field between 2001 and 2012. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart said he was unaware of any American athlete suspected of doping in the report.
Many of those suspected of doping or taking banned substances to boost performance were involved in endurance events and accounted for 146 medals at top events, including 55 golds, according to the Sunday Times, which released the report along with German broadcaster ARD/WDR.
Leading American track and field athletes say those caught doping should face harsher penalties, including lifetime bans from the sport. Authorities should wipe out any records offenders may have set and redistribute any medals they may have won, athletes told Reuters, even if wrongdoing is uncovered years after the infraction.
"At least from the middle distance and distance side of things, Americans have done very well at getting on the podium at the world championships and the Olympics Games," said Deena Kastor, the U.S. record holder in the marathon.
"If we're doing that while the rest of the world is cheating, then it bodes well for how U.S. distance running is standing on a global level."
Top flight sprinters like Ben Johnson and Marion Jones generally garner the headlines for taking banned substances, along with shot putters and hammer throwers.
But the new report, which comes just ahead of the Aug. 22 opening ceremonies of the biennial World Athletics Championships in Beijing, highlighted many distance runners with allegedly suspicious test results.
The Sunday Times and ARD said they were given access to the results of more than 12,000 tests of more than 5,000 athletes. Two scientists concluded that more than 800 athletes had recorded one or more "abnormal" results, defined as a result that had less than one chance in 100 of being natural.
Kyle Merber, a world record holder in the distance medley relay as part of the U.S. team, said track already suffered from a "black mark" because of doping in previous years and that "anything else that comes out is a step forward."
"We'll hear some bad news but at the end of the day, you would rather hear it than have it happen in the background that no one is going to talk about," he said. "The sport will emerge stronger from this."
Athletes wanting to build muscle mass can take steroids but long-distance runners, who don't necessarily want to bulk up, may get an endurance-boosting blood transfusion or take the blood hormone EPO, or erythropoietin. Illicit blood transfusions and the use of EPO are banned under world doping rules.
Shalane Flanagan, who holds U.S. records in several distance events, said she hoped the report "spurs an even deeper investigation and as a result, we produce a system where medals are being handed to the authentic athletes."
"If that means going back 10 years and redistributing medals to the rightful athletes, so be it," she said. "It's never too late to do the right thing."
Many athletes, including American sprinter Tyson Gay, have received suspensions for doping instead of lifetime bans.
Gay tested positive for anabolic steroids in 2013 and was banned for one year by USADA after co-operating with the organisation. He was stripped of the silver medal he won with the 4 x 100 metre relay team at the London 2012 Olympics but the 9.69 second 100 meters he ran in 2009 -- the second-fastest ever -- still stands.
"My personal opinion is that their names should be wiped off the books altogether as if they never competed," Kastor said of those caught doping. "I'm worried about the image of our sport.
"The public is a little harder on track and field athletes because our sport is supposed to be the purest -- just running and jumping and throwing. And we've managed to screw that up."
USADA's Tygart, whose dogged pursuit of Lance Armstrong uncovered doping by the now-disgraced champion cyclist, said those that take performance-enhancing drugs "need to be held accountable."
"You hope no one is resorting to those methods to cheat, but if they're doing it, they need to be caught and exposed and thrown out of sport," he said.
Merber said the glory of winning would be lost even if a second-place athlete is ultimately declared a champion because the winner was caught doping.
"One of the greatest crimes is stealing the honour of someone winning a medal at a major championship," he said. "The experience of being able to do a victory lap with your flag and standing on the medal stand and hearing your national anthem is one of the greatest joys in the sport."
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Frank McGurty and Alan Crosby)