THE LATEST ATHLETICS DOPING SCANDAL – AND ROOT CAUSES

11.17.2015

So, here we are again. Big news on the athletic doping scandals front. In this case it is ‘athletics’, the apparently proper term for track and field. We know though, that this is just the latest scandal and doping goes to other sport as well.

[Ed. Note: There are no photographs, no links, no references. This is strictly a personal opinion and perspective.]

I am certainly not an apologist for athletes deciding to take that extra elicit step to gain that last little advantage that takes them from being just generally amazing, to the gold medal – especially the gold medal in one of the BIG events like the Olympic Games. However, a little study on the matter without our sparkling white purist robes of sanctimony, might provide an explanation. And, might just pull the rest of us into the vortex of this swirling mess, because we are complicit in certain ways.

I am getting on in years, as most of you know. But, that means that when I first started competing in Athletics in my teens, even I, a mere school age runner, had to have my Amateur Athletics card! I keep EVERYTHING, but apparently not that. Sort of wish I still had it as a momento of those ‘pure‘ times.

Now, lest you think I am pining for simple and as I have put it, pure times in athletics – I am not. They may have been pure in the sense that the crazy money that comes with success, was not tainting the approach of athletes to their sport and training. But, as with so many things, nobody seems to be able to find a middle ground. In the times I am talking about you could lose your amateur status for accepting a prize of any practical value. I am talking about $5.00 or a useful prize of any sort. Naturally, ribbons, medals and trophies were fine. I DO in fact, have a bronze medal I won back in those days from a clubs track meet. And, maybe as soon as I post this piece, I will find my amateur card lurking among my old school stuff (because my running in those days was part school and part running club(s)). With my brother having just passed away, I’ve been rooting through a lot of that old stuff looking for memorabilia of our early athletic lives. So, it could happen.

Someone I currently know and who is older than me by almost a decade, was an Olympic race walker in his day, but still talks about how his status was threatened because he went to the US for a weekend workshop to coach some younger ‘walkers’ and accepted expenses. EXPENSES! After much argument, it was agreed that it was acceptable as he was not profiting. That was how it was. It was not pure. It was stupid. And with all that, did anyone ever take money under the table? I imagine they did.

In those ‘pure’ days there was so little money that athletes trained in their spare time. If they wanted to eat, they had to have a job. Nobody considered their athletic development and performance to be their job. Nobody had shoe sponsors. You bought your shoes! Nobody paid your way to a meet other than maybe via a club organized fund-raiser of some sort, but it certainly wasn’t by a sponsor.

Some team sport was organized such that a team might be sponsored by a bigger company which could offer jobs to the athletes and which might also be prepared to allow the time needed to travel and/or play. And, these were sports where amateurism was not required. I am going to add something that I am not 100% sure about, but that seems to ring one of those ‘bells’. As I recall, if you wanted to be an amateur, say in Athletics, you could not be a ‘professional’ in another sport. Of course if you were an East Block athlete, you were in the military. Your work WAS training for your sport. So much for the actual amateur on the field of play. That said, if you were one of the military athletes, you’d better keep your performance up or you really WOULD become a soldier.

People remember Steve Prefontaine for his running prowess and related exploits, not to mention his ever quotable quotes, but he was a pioneer in demanding that the athletes be able to share in the profits of the ‘sport’ that were accruing to those that ran the show, while athletes scrimped and sweated and starved. It would be interesting to know what his place in all of this would have been in later years, had he not died so young.

Some might suggest that it was only right that athletes actually profit from their abilities to excel and from the entertainment they provide the rest of us. I would be one of those people. Without the athletes, the Olympics just become the opening and closing ceremonies. Speaking for myself, I feel those have become obscene spectacles pushed by the ego of the hosting countries.

“Profit” is a loaded word though. I feel it is good that the best and maybe the soon to be best, are encouraged and supported, and given the opportunity to dig as deep into themselves as they need to, in order to produce what they are capable of producing in terms of performance on the field of play. The HUGE payday is something else. This is where it gets messy and complicated and a problem. I suppose this latest scandal with the Russians brings in another factor where the driving motive is the greater glory of the mother-land. We saw a lot of that in the Cold War days, when athletic prowess was conflated with the superiority of the political system.

Enter Performance Enhancing Drugs!

Actually, there is one more very important factor, whether it is a driving force in itself or the weak link to be exploited for profit. That is the competitive spirit of the elite athlete. Money, as such, may only be a way of keeping score. Winning is what it is all about. At one point some years ago, there was a psychological study done where the researchers asked a bunch of elite/semi-elite athletes if someone could hypothetically guarantee them an Olympic Gold Medal, but at the cost of five years of their lives, would they accept. As I recall, a huge proportion of them said ‘yes’. Now, asking a 20 year-old if a cost of five years off their life was worth it, might not be a fair question. No 20 year-old thinks he/she is ever going to die anyway. Also, it is hard to say whether it was the medal or the money that might follow, that drove the answer, but it was long enough ago that I personally feel it was the pure glory of being Olympic Champion. The really big money and sponsorships and endorsements had not kicked in the way it exists now.

I suggested the athletic desire to win is both a strength and a weakness. The big sponsors make money off the fact that the best of the best use THEIR product. If you want to be that guy/girl wearing the [insert brand here] gear and get paid the big bucks for doing so, you have to keep BEING the best of the best. Thus the ‘weakness’ to be exploited and the need for some to do whatever they have to do.

But what about the reference to the gear manufacturers? Even us weekend warrior runners buy shoes and other gear that will improve our performance. Shoe technology is just one, albeit very good example. The fabrics of our clothing are a factor too. If you happen to be a track athlete as opposed to a road or trail runner, would you even think about competing on a cinder track? If we want to be ‘pure’ maybe we should ban all these modern technological advances. What about some of the older (not even ancient, just a few decades) athletes and their records? How do you compare sprinters and their records from the cinder track era with today’s athletes. I often wonder what people like my hero, Harry Jerome, might do with modern gear, training and tracks. We are only talking about the 1960s. Maybe if we want to be pure, we should ban shoes completely, other than sandals and have the athletes compete naked, as was once the norm. But, I digress!

Many proponents of amateur athleticism did anticipate some of this modern stuff. However, there have been elements of this PED thing dating back to the ancient Olympics. Many of the early ‘games’ were military skills, and as such could be used not just for the warrior-athletes to prove themselves in a non-lethal way, but also for their  states to show their prominence. Not only that but the best of them were very much rewarded and idolized as we see today. I believe it was my old running/writing friend Roger Robinson who wrote a piece on the PEDs of the day. Yes! PEDs in the ancient games. Many athletes had secret potions, herbs and barks and special diets, that were reputed to give them extra strength or stamina. Did they? Maybe. Remember, a great many of our modern medicines are derived from natural sources. Once we know the active component, we no longer need to chew willow bark to cure our headache, we can just take an aspirin. We learn how to either extract or manufacture the active component and especially to manage and control the dose. Nonetheless, some of the stuff those ancient Olympians used probably did have some efficacy as a PED. Some, probably were more effective in making the athlete think HE was that powerful. I did learn that black magic was a no-no. Couldn’t hex your opponent, just wasn’t right.

Is it human nature to ‘do what it takes’? It seems that it is.

The Russian situation that has just come to the fore is one thing, but there have been rumours swirling for some time that Kenyan distance running may not be totally how it looks. We have seen individual athletes from almost everywhere get caught and punished. There are also stories that the US is as bad as any, where it comes to manipulating drug tests. I say these things only in the sense that the stories are out there, not that I am a believer or that I know one way or another. But, it is big business and big politics and big money for the best of the best.

Something we need to be clear on is that PEDs aren’t going to take a slug and turn him into a race horse. They aren’t like some kind of ‘nitro’ boost to the engine of a race car. That said, I have just had a sudden mental picture of the start of the 2028 100m Olympic final. Athletes are under starter’s orders. Each one approaches the blocks. A trainer is poised behind them with syringe in hand. The starter intones: “Runners, take your marks!” …… “Trainers, Inject Your Runner!” ……. “Set” – — Bang. Eight sprinters streak down the track to the finish in seven seconds, and those are the women. The men are up next to challenge the 5.31 second world record. Welcome to the All Drug Olympics.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. The root causes are terribly complex. I’ve touched on some of them here. I have tongue in cheek suggested here and elsewhere that we just let ‘er rip and go with full on drug enhanced sport and see just how far it will go. It will probably result in some spectacular performances, not to mention the odd in competition death, and let’s face it we do watch some sport not to actually SEE someone die, but with the delicious chance that the sport is dangerous enough that it could happen.

Personally, and I hardly think I’m alone, I do love to see dedicated athletes push themselves to their limit, but I’d rather see a slower record time for any given event if it was definitely the best anyone could do without external enhancement. Pure, in other words.

Something I do wonder about is whether some of the banned substances should actually be banned. What if we spent a bunch more money on determining whether certain substances really produce a significant enhancement in double blind tests? There is little doubt in my mind that there is a placebo effect in some cases. The substance works, mostly because the athlete believes it works, but in reality the enhancement comes because the athlete is inspired to dig deeper. I’m not saying that none of the so-called PEDs should be banned. There are a good many that should be banned, if for no other reason than the long-term harm they do to the individual who takes them. And, here we are back at the question about the guaranteed Olympic gold at the cost of five years of your life. BUT, if the banned list was short and absolute and the authorities were as smart and well equipped as the cheaters, we might be better off. Or not. Something to think about anyway.

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