It happened about three in the afternoon on Saturday, 2 August. I got a note that an athlete, Amantle Montsho (2011 World Champion in the 400m) had tested positive. I went over to my friend, Duncan MacKay, editor of Inside the Games, and asked his team if they had heard about it. Duncan told me about their story on insidethegames.biz , which I have linked. Well-written, but the comment about track and field getting another blow to the sport’s image rubbed me a bit.
No offense to Inside the Games, as they are reporting the story and that is their opinion.
Perhaps I am too close?
Perhaps, I am.
However, I will still try to respond to drug use in my sport of athletics.
I have been involved in track and field since I was fourteen, that is now, forty-two years. After time with baseball for seven years, short stints in soccer, hockey and football (a week), I found cross country and our wonderful coach, Father Ralph Passarelli, a Jesuit priest with fondness for all things sport. I thrived on cross country and athletics. Although not particularly good (I ran nearly five hundred races and did not win one until my senior year in college), I enjoyed my team mates, the training, the history of the sport, and watching meets with my friends. I spent sixteen years coaching, from high school, to club to uni and finally, junior college with my buddy, Joe Mangan. Those years at Foothill were some of the fondest of my life. We had our sons at the track some days, and it was just fun to be outside, working with athletes who loved the sport. Tuesday nights, for four to five years, I spent timing a group of friends from the Aggies. It was, for me, life-giving to coach.
Working at Runner’s World afforded me a visit to my first Olympic Games-1984. I went to the 800 mens final, watching Seb Coe take silver for the second time (to me, even more impressive than his two Olympic golds at 1,500 meters), and then, Alberto Cova battle Marti Vaino in the 10,000 meters. When Vainio tested positive after the 10,000 meters, and had to be physically removed from the starting line of the 5,000 meters, I was crestfallen.
I had known about drugs in sports since the late seventies. I was under the naive impression that only the big guys and East German sprinters used drugs. Au contraire.
Frank Shorter tells the story that at the 1972 Olympic training camp, a USOC related doctor told the assembled athletes that drugs did not work. In 1976, a year before testosterone was banned, reports surfaced, that in a simple show of hands, many athletes admitted at the US training camp to using testosterone.
The reindeer milk story of Lasse Viren was always suspect. I remember asking Brendan Foster in about 1987, what he thought about Lasse Viren. Brendan, showing his class noted that Lasse was one of the greatest athletes that ever lived.
The Ben Johnson story, featured in Sports Illustrated, during the 1988 Olympics, was transforming to sports culture. The Ben Johnson story did more to cast an eye on drugs in sports and the less than serious approach to drug testing in global sports in that era. Federations had paid lip service, but, truly, no one seemed to care. Some athletes seemed to get free cards, while others were popped. Suffice it to say, that in the 1980’s, lip service, in many circumstances, were paid to the use of banned drugs. Rationalization for many in the West was that, to compete on an even level with the Soviet bloc, one must cheat.
Even in those times, most athletes did not cheat. Either they did not have access, or the money, or they had a developed sense of ethics, along with those around them, to not use banned drugs.
Let’s be honest. Using drugs that are banned is cheating. Call it what it is. Supplements are still blamed for having something in them, from sexual aids to products that keep one awake. While some are moderated by government groups, many are not, and I do not understand why an athlete would take something that they do not know.
Marion Jones was one of the ones that truly hit home. I met Marion when she was seventeen, at the 1992 Olympic Trials. In 1994, we gave her our American Athletics athlete of the year award. I always thought that Marion could have won all the medals she won, perhaps different colors, but saw, in her situation, a litmus test for the sport. When she admitted, well, kind of, drug use, it destroyed a real role model for many young athletes.
Drug positives hit home to me in the 1990s. I remember meeting a top shot putter, at the 1990 US Championships. I was sitting in the dirt shot put practice ring, amusing my son, Adam, who was about four at the time. All of a sudden, this huge, six foot plus, shot putter is following Adam around the shot put ring, kicking up more sand than Adam. Adam is giggling, and so is the shot putter.
I introduced myself and thanked him for entertaining my son. He said it was a great way to let off some steam before he threw. I remember thinking, what a nice guy.
I interviewed Randy Barnes for over an hour that day. He was a kind man, wonderful with kids, and a fine shot putter. He also later tested positive. I did not know what to say about that one, still don’t. Do I compartmentalize the person from the act?
I have known Lance since before he was a star. His coach was the late Edmund Burke, a fine coach. Burke also was controversial, as he admitted to helping cyclists on US team blood boost when it was frowned up, but not banned. Edmund wrote for me about illicit drugs and what was bad out there. We would occasionally publish columns in American Athletics on the junk being given out to some athletes, before the testers even knew what it was.
Lance Armstrong was another. He lied to the world. He intimidated a sport, sponsors, and his fellow athletes. If Dante’s Divine Comedy is ever rewritten (and it should not be), an additional level of hell, with Oprah’s interview of Mr. Armstrong playing constantly, from millions of TV screens, and the only person on that level should be the disgraced bike racer. Oh, and Oompa Loompas should be beating him senseless with bike tires. (I added that in, seemed to fit).
I am concerned about the way USADA and WADA test. I hope that the protocols developed can stand up in court. I also believe that they are catching ninety-five percent of the cheaters. The good things outweigh the bad, but constant vigilance is needed.
My belief is that it takes over $100,000 a year to find a way to circumvent the drug testing groups. Keeping blood for ten years, banning for life, all make sense.
I am told that, soon, wealthy parents will be able to pick genetic attributes: the right leg of David Beckham and brain of Albert Einstein? I sure hope that is science fiction, but having seen parents over involved in little league sports as a young teenager, I expect some to try it.
Drug testing is not the only effective way to curb drug use. Pushing the limits is part of modern sport. Read ads in back of any sports magazine: Anabolic-LIKE substances are featured.
The disgrace of Lance Armstrong, and Marion Jones was like a daily passion play being shown in the town square. Use drugs, get caught and your life is absolutely over.
I was asked by an English fan, a squash player, who was in line to watch athletics, about drugs in sports, on our walk into Hampden Park. He thought drug use could be blamed on money in sports. I disagreed. It is complicated, but this is how I see it: Drugs came into sports when we started elevating sports above their proper levels. Sports are to inspire, to be coffee conversation. Running, Jumping and throwing are noble pursuits in a world with such irrationality. Yet, in many sports, we pay sports figures many times more than teachers, emergency personnel and the people who watch our young children.
Drugs came into sports as sports were bastardized to be used as a weapon to show which political system was better. The Soviet Union got it. East Germany got it. The US rationalized it. So did everyone else. Drugs came into sports as sports began to be used as a weapon in the Cold War. It was no more only California body builders in the last 1940s whispering about steroids in weight rooms.
Where did the drugs come from? Some were developed to help paraplegics and quadriplegics who survived horrific injuries from the Second World War. Some were more sinister, used by Waffen SS during the Second World War to stoke up their troops on the Eastern front. Some of the things taken in recent past came from medicines used on animals. Such is the level of misinformation that some in sports will use anything if it is “undetectable” and “guaranteed to work”.
I recall a t-shirt I saw at a track meet years ago: Better sports through chemistry.
Fame and notoriety, and the absolute heights of fame that comes with global sports, and 24 hour sports channels, are other reasons for cheating. In the US, their is nearly daily coverage for former American football players convicted of murder and professional hits! Some will say that this is part of the news cycle.
In a recent talk about American football, a well known sports coach noted, that in the three hundred athletes that they queried for their team’s selections, 2/3 were raised by single parents. Young athletes looking for role models, for people to set limits are key. Coaches do that, and so should families and those that surround them. If an athlete knows his coach will kick his or her butt if they stray, or that the family will not tolerate cheating, it is part of what makes an athlete understand how to live an ethical life.
I applaud celebrating who is the best player in the world, but I think felons are felons, and should not be featured in modern media. But, this is the post-OJ world, and notoriety is daily fodder for modern multi-platform media.
Rationalization is a key way drugs have seeped into our sports. Drug testing only works so far. A sense of ethics, a proper perspective of where athletics fits into ones’ life, and good role models are as important as effective drug testing.
Sponsors are taking first steps. adidas and Nike, as an example, do not sign athletes who has come back from a two year drug ban. adidas does not sign any athlete who comes back from a drug ban, period.
In the end, most people do not cheat, but the cult of personality that we have in modern media and culture highlights even the jerks. I wonder, if Mr. Shakespeare were alive today, would he get as much media coverage as Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian? I am not sure.
Working as I do, 24/7 in the sport of athletics, I see people that I admire and those that I do not. We learn what to do, and what not to do from those whom with which we interact. That is a lesson of life.
I have also noticed a trend that makes me quite sad in modern social media. Many on twitter, FB, and other forms of social media think that, because they hear something, it makes it fact. This athlete uses drugs, this athlete is dirty. I watched a young athlete accused of drugs this past spring and the justification was, well, this site is anti-drug and we know things. It was up to the athlete to prove his or her innocence. I find that type of reasoning sad.
One suggestion, by a keen observer of the sport, was that the athlete take the site to the court of law to decide. Libel law has not caught up with social media, but, when it does, it will have ramifications.
French law states that one is guilty until proven innocent. English law states that one is innocent until proven guilty.
I can not look into someone’s soul. Do I suspect some athletes are dirty? Yes. I do not highlight those athletes and groups the best I can.
Track & Field does more drug testing than any other sport in the world. That, is a fact. It also, for many years, looked away from drug use, as did most others in sport. That is not justification of the facts, just a statement of the facts.
I do find it curious, however, that I continue to see a double standard about athletics and drug testing. Any time that a drug positive happens in athletics, it is a blemish on the sport, but not the same nomenclature is used when speaking of professional sports.
Is it because Olympic is noted with athletics and the general public sees it as a bigger offense to a sport that they consider so pure and part of sports?
It could be.
One can not be vigilant about cheats without catching cheaters.
I cannot, however, not be saddened when an athlete tests positive in our sport.
It feels like a punch in the stomach.