Lance Armstrong is the poster-child for doping in athletics. After years of fighting the claims that he had been doping during his incredible run to six straight Tour de France yellow jerseys, he was exposed. Oh, and what a grand exposure it was. One-on-one interviews with Oprah, news outlets banging down his door to find out why, and a number of other sensational reports that helped to make him a bona fide jerk in the sporting world.
Cycling, being an endurance sport, requires an extraordinary aerobic capacity to reach the highest ranks. However, the sport has been tainted for decades now with the most prolific names being exposed as cheats. Blood-doping, EPO and other synthetic means of raising one’s aerobic strength are not limited to just the men on bikes. Just as with the athletes wanting to improve endurance in cycling, track and field is rich with strife over its athletes doping practices.
Cross-country and track and field coach Al Carius reflects on the negative implications of a cheating culture in endurance running.
“Everyone wants to be better,” Carius said. “But I don’t care if you run five minutes in the mile or four minutes. I like to see athletes grow as people. I want every athlete that comes through the (North Central College) program to come out being a better person. I think with all the blood-doping and steroid crap, young people are losing sight of what matters.”
This winter, the doping scandals were headed by the biggest name in all of women’s marathoning, Rita Jeptoo. This Kenyan swept the world’s most prominent major marathons, winning more than $500,000 in the process. However, the half-marathon-world-record-setter was announced to have been doping and will now serve a two-year ban, holding her out of competition until early 2017. Worse yet, all of her earnings from this past year’s marathons will be revoked; more than $500,000.
Doping is not new to the sport. The Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War were known for their wild doping practices that made their female throwers look more manly than the contestants in male body-building competitions. Doping in these cases refers to the drugs that increase strength like steroids, testosterone or HGH; cheating all the same. The testing protocols by the international track and field governing body, IAAF, were not quite as stringent back then as it is now.
“I see why people do it,” said Oklahoma University track and field graduate assistant Johnny Crain. “There’s levels none of us will ever reach, so why not take the chance to get caught? Sure, you’d be embarrassed; but then again, you’d be on a level you wouldn’t have reached if you were clean.”
The dilemma of whether to cheat or not appears to be more of an ethical one.
One of the most infamous moments of cheaters being caught cheating was in the 1988 Olympic 100-meter final, which the local newspapers called “the dirtiest race in history.” And no, it was not dirty in the way of outstanding human performance, but rather of shameful displays of ‘who had the better drugs in their system.’ The only clean runner to place in the top five of the race was American Calvin Smith. Champion Ben Johnson of Canada, as well as three others, failed drug test following the race.
In a CBC radio documentary, which revisited the fallout of 1988 Olympic champion Ben Johnson’s career, stated that 20 athletes tested positive for drugs but were cleared by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) at the1988 Seoul Olympics, and an IOC official stated that endocrine profiles done at those games indicated that 80 percent of the track and field athletes tested showed evidence of long-term steroid use.
In ESPN documentary “9.79*,” a brief but descriptive message appeared as the video began to play, “you gotta take it to make it.”
The whole mess that took place in Seoul, South Korea, more than 25 years ago is still a problem we face in today’s modern track and field competitions. Former world record-holder and legendary British middle-distance runner Sebastian Coe commented on doping during his campaign for IAAF presidency.
“It’s absolutely vital that people believe in our sport. That the athlete lining up in lane three feels that he or she has got as good of chance as the athlete in lane four or lane two and not because there is a better set of chemists sitting there in the wings,” Coe said.
It is that fairness in the simple sport — of who can run the fastest, jump the highest or longest, and throw the farthest – that draws so many participants. When there is a level field where equipment plays a minimum role, and instead it is based upon fitness and training, people see the sport as a growing opportunity in every direction.
World records themselves are always swirling with questions of doping.
Letsrun.com, a message board community of runners, took a massive poll asking about people’s perception of “clean” versus “dirty” world record-holders in IAAF events. The survey comprised of over 11,000 respondents.
Track and field draws the second-most amount of athletes to its competitions, behind soccer, in the world. However, while there is almost no money in the sport compared to American football or international club soccer, there are still miles of red tape and politics to it.
Most athletes believe the highest honor of competing is to be able to represent their countries at world and Olympic championships. The limited three spots on an Olympic roster in a given event gives way to some of the greatest drama and the best-tuned athletes in the country to come together and compete at the Olympic Trials.
Over the winter, a number of Russian athletes were exposed as doping in competitions. While the act itself is not necessarily as disturbing as any other instance of cheating, it was the attempted cover-up that made headlines.
With medical information passing hands for almost every major competition, biological passports are used to give the most comprehensive profile of an athlete entering. 2010 London Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova is accused of paying a $600,000 bribe to keep her biological passport from reaching anti-doping officials.
There is another cog to the doping schemes: the testers or officials are not always ethically holding up their positions. Bribery and national pressure to protect athletes may be the undoing of the sport itself. If those responsible for the fairness of competition are furthering the cheating process, where does it all end?
“When a marquee athlete tests positive, many international sports organizations may find themselves in the unenviable position of destroying the career of a world-famous athlete. Or, in Russia’s case, an athlete critical to the country’s identity,” Peter Vigeron said in his article, “Why the Russian Runner Doping Scandal Matters.”
One of the most suspicious events regarding the corrupt anti-doping movement is found in the world’s largest factory of world-class sprinters, Jamaica.
“The Jamaica government has cut its funding to the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO) by $14 million,” Minister of Sports Natalie Neita-Headley announced. Jamaica is home to world champions Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann Frazier-Price and Yohan Blake. The controversy in the cut-backs on anti-doping come as a surprise to American athletes and officials because of their already miniscule amount of testing. In 2012 US Anti-Doping Agency performed 2,279 on its athletes. In the same year JADCO performed 106.
Olympic Trials marathon qualifier Patrick Rizzo was recently tested after a poor performance in the 2014 Houston Half-Marathon.
“I just got notified that I’m on the USADA out-of-competition testing list again! Does a 52nd place finish in Houston makes me suspect? Are the other 51 on it? That’s the only race I’ve run this quarter to put me on the list.” Rizzo said. There are inequalities between the two countries when it comes to the frequency of testing.
With the dominance of Caribbean athletes in the short track events and the East Africans in longer road races — both groups coming under fire recently for their drug-test results and past practices – the IAAF needs to step in to create the change.
The sport of track and field is so simple, yet requires one to be physiologically fine-tuned. In every sport, there are going to be inequities. It is when those inequities are approached with chemicals rather than determination and hard work that drops such a dark shadow on a sport.
“Yes, you need to keep up with the illegitimate side of science. You need to go on committing resources – and I would treble those resources if we have to – but there also is a moral imperative here.” Coe Said.