Drugs in Track & Field
by on Wednesday, July 17, 2013  (7 comments)

It's been a rough summer for T&F fans, especially sprint fans. First, the news in June that Veronica Campbell-Brown and Yohan Blake failed tests. Two of Jamaica's three most popular athletes busted. What could be bigger than that? How about what we got about a month later? Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter, Sherone Simpson and a so far unnamed 4th Jamaican sprinter.

I'm a little behind the story because I was out camping and barely checking news when this weekend's news broke. I've been trying to figure out what to write about this story or whether I should just let it go. Obviously, I decided not to let it go.

Instead, after all the discussion about how T&F is going to die because of this and counter arguments explaining why T&F is not going to die, largely based on the fact that the Tour de France didn't die because of far more severe revelations of widespread drug use, I'd like to explain why I'm going to continue to be a T&F fan. I'm going to try to keep it short and to the point.

First, this doesn't change the equation. Ben Johnson. Marion Jones. Justin Gatlin. Those are just three high profile names. The list is almost endless. Any T&F fan who has been paying attention to the sport should not have been surprised by the news of the past month. When I heard this past weekend's news, I honestly didn't flinch. Even though Tyson Gay was the type of guy who would not raise suspicion with his personality, the signs were there. A past training partner had been caught doping. His coach doesn't have a squeaky clean record. He came back from very difficult injuries and, at an age where most sprinters are in decline, has been having a stellar year. None of these prove guilt but they create a situation where one shouldn't be surprised if the worst is confirmed, as it now has been. As difficult as it can be to be this cynical and as much as I want to believe in everyone's innocence, it's just a fact of life now. Is there any professional athlete who, if you saw a headline saying that athlete has tested positive, you would be truly shocked? This leads to my second point...

The bottom line is all sports are dirty. If you don't believe drugs are a problem in your favorite sport, you have your head in the sand. Drugs exist in every sport. In any pursuit, some people are going to try to cheat. In pursuits where cheaters don't get caught, the cheaters will take over the pursuit and force honest competitors to the second tier. This happens in business, politics, every walk of life. In sports, the ones where you don't hear about drugs are actually the most drug riddled. Drug testing is so lax or even nonexistant that anybody can cheat with impunity. T&F is not one of these sports. While exposing drug cheats may look bad, at least you're doing something to make it harder to cheat. This is the angle T&F has taken, at least in some countries like, as we see this year, Jamaica and the United States. So this doesn't change the equation for me. T&F is no more dirty than any other sport. As a fan of sports in general, why would this change my interest in T&F?

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7 comments
Andrew A.

On the same token, I see Farah's 1500m European record and have to roll my eyes at how the media just unquestioningly celebrates something so blatantly ridiculous. At least pro cycling has a pocket of concerned observers willing to scrutinize and publicly call out performances that rightly deserve such treatment.

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Ryan

Yes, Farah is an interesting guy to talk about. While I will always stand by "innocent until proven guilty" and I have always been hesitant to point to any individual and say his/her performances are suspicious, the lack of any cloud of suspicion seems a little surprising. Same with some other very high performers, a certain sprinter who has never seemed to have a cloud of suspicion around him also comes to mind.

The timing now is pretty interesting. Just as we're hearing about a certain baseball player getting a 65 game suspension (about 40% of one season) and we're hearing more about a certain football player getting a 4 game suspension (25% of one season) we're considering whether Gay may face a suspension of 2 or 4 years. Slightly different standards between different sports?

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Andrew A.

Well, there will seemingly be lengthy suspensions coming in the MLB probe. Regardless, it makes sense that there are different standards, two of those sports are run as professional leagues while the other is run as a public-interest non-profit that oversees youth as well as 'pro' levels of the sport. There is a far different charter and mission involved for the latter.

I stand by "guilt by association" when we can clearly see athletes go to a given coach and find a far higher rate of significant improvement and success than with any other top coach, especially when that coach has gone on-record to state that in the modern sport a clean athlete cannot medal or set a WR and is known to entrust athlete diagnoses and medication to doctors who have reputations for going beyond what modern therapeutic medicine considers sensible, research-supported limits. Where there's smoke, there's fire. Look at said coach's counterpart in the same vicinity and under the same corporate sponsorship umbrella, Schumacher. While Schumacher has good success, at any given time he can have highly talented athletes showing poor performances. That's the truth for most coaches, even the very best. A 5K/10K specialist dipping that far down to take a record put out there by amazing middle-distance specialists like Cram, Coe, and Ovett (to name just three - there have been (likely dirty) Spaniards who would have gone after that record more recently) is just silly. Another perspective is that he just went faster than Geb over 1500m (by about 5 seconds), despite never coming close to going faster than Geb over 5K (14 seconds slower) or 10K (24 seconds slower). At age 30. After 16 years in the sport. Call it pro rasslin' on the oval, because it ain't real.

And yeah, far too few people (esp. in the media) are willing to ask hard, honest questions about Bolt, too.

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Ryan

Point taken on the suspension issue. I guess I would just like to see tough suspensions across the board. I believe you've seen the "prisoner's dilemma" of drugs in sports that was floating around on Twitter. Unfortunately, I lost the link but it makes a great point. For a baseball or football player, the downside of getting caught is so insignificant, why not? At least in T&F, the downside is significant enough you might have second thoughts. The risk of losing two of your prime years and the question of whether you can come back after two years out might change one's thinking regardless of sport.

As for guilt by association, it's definitely not something to ignore. It is hard to imagine a 5000/10,000 specialist who can top so many great middle distance runners in a middle distance event. All the connections you draw are ones I've thought of and they make a compelling case. I guess I want to believe in the best in people but something doesn't add up.

I see Bolt was asked some questions today but it sounds like they were the standard "how do you feel about it" type questions.

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Ryan

Milwaukee paper says baseball needs to be more like T&F, if not even tougher.

Interesting take on drugs in sports in general, focusing on baseball in this case.

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4gen/sf

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/ostler/article/Victor-Conte-sees-MLB-drug-test-loophole-3799949.php

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Andrew A.

I had not planned to comment further on this post, yet circumstances have taken an unexpected twist. I am unsure what to make of the fact that I have now personally known three people who have been involved in doping scandals in pro running. The first two were college teammates (separate incidents, years apart after college) from Germany and Spain. I would not be mistaken for an elite runner so it is an interesting set of coincidences. The most recent one is the former fiancee of my late buddy, TJ (killed last summer). The story broke earlier this week and she has issued a statement denying all wrong and accusing the periodical that ran the story of publishing lies. I do not know much of the publication in question, though I am told that it has its roots as a propaganda mouthpiece and falls somewhere between tabloid and credible news source. I know that my amigo (also implicated by the author though I am skeptical about just how much he really knew based on his interactions with me; ultimately it is essentially irrelevant in my eyes) had revealed information to me that kept me wary though hopeful for the best. You see, while living in Madrid he had met and befriended one of my college teammates mentioned earlier. That same college teammate had been coaching Marta Dominguez, top steepler and implicated in at least one doping scandal. That is also where he met his fiancee, who was training in the same group and implicated in the same doping scandal (the one where she skated as the presiding judge ordered evidence destroyed). My buddy then moved back to Boulder and brought his new fiancee with him. She is a charming young woman and an incredibly fit athlete. She took up training with HTS here, first with the head coach applying/observing her workouts as supplied by her coach back in Europe and then with the head coach taking over her training completely. She had a lot of DNFs and bad races on the track last year in trying to qualify for her country's Olympic team, though got it together for her national and then European cross-country championships. She gave track another go this spring with marginal results and then switched focus to the roads, ostensibly with the encouragement of her coach. On the roads she found immediate and sustained success, placing high at a number of top road races around the US (Bay to Breakers, Peachtree, Bix 7, Falmouth) and winning prize money. She had a fall marathon debut planned -- that may still happen, for all I know. The author of the article had contacted her coach regarding the investigation and he reportedly had no comment at the time. He did give comment in a profile that Running Times ran on her in a recent issue, indicating perhaps a blind eye turned to -- if not a willful ignorance of -- her past. Of course, that training group and coach which embraced her fully with both arms (lots of social media love) sent her packing this week. They loved her unquestioningly when she was racing great and busting out 3:09 km repeats at altitude, hanging right with guys who have pretty solid marathon pedigrees, yet proved quick to run the other direction once scandal hit the media. I suppose it is hard to blame them, at least for the latter part - I admit that it is a bit of a relief that she had become distant from me and other friends of her late fiance over the past year as she put herself on an island with HTS so I/we can feel spared from any filth of association.

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