Hope And Heroes Amidst Scandals

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 NPR’s On Point recently discussed some of the Olympic doping scandals that have been peppering the sports pages lately. Myself and a friend were talking about it amongst all the other doping news and wished we weren’t running when it was live as we may have called in to offer a less pessimistic view of the implications of these busts. It had me wondering if this is how the general public sees the sport.  While the scandals capture headlines now, we can only hope they are the first steps in creating a more honest future for Track and Field.

Friends Due Benefits

Some athletes like Alysia Montaño have spoken about the pain and life changing loss of the Olympic and world Championship medals stolen by recently banned Russian athletes. While it’s in obvious ways an ugly story, there is solace in that there are a lot of truly heroic athletes like Alysia left in the sport. It’s sad that they’re obscured from the attention reserved for the sports’ victors and dominant champions, but to the people wondering if every Olympic athlete is doping: no. There are a good few gold-hearted Alysia’s out there to look up to.

My own training partners are examples.

Kim Smith is likely due hardware from a World championship, Olympic Games and a Major Marathon if you remove all suspicious or busted athletes from results of her 13 plus years of running very near the top of the world rankings. Any one of these accomplishments would be life changing and would’ve elevated her to household-name-status in her Native New Zealand.

Former training partner Amy Hastings is still waiting to hear what will happen with prize money from her now top 4 finish in the 2014 Chicago marathon after Rita Jeptoo tested positive.

Irish-woman Roisin McGettigan-Dumas found out more than 5 years afterward that she was actually the 2009 European Championships indoor 1500m bronze medalist. The podium celebration looks slightly different years later :

Kim and I have a back porch medal ceremony for Roisin's Euro-Indoor Bronze over 5 years and 2 kids later!

Kim and I have a back porch medal ceremony for Roisin’s Euro-Indoor Bronze over 5 years and 2 kids later!

These are losses not only for these athletes, but also for the younger ones who miss out on having them to look up to as good role models. When you can’t make it to the podium, that large scale exposure is diminished.

   Rethinking the Spotlight

It seems like the average viewer doesn’t notice that there are more than 3 or so parties competing at any one olympic event. The focus is so strongly on those top positions, that the other athletes there often don’t even make the camera frame. I understand why, as track is already like a 3 ring circus with a lot to focus on, and we all want to know who wins. However, it leads to a blurring of a majority of the field, in which there are actually a number of great stories of honest triumph and long practiced diligence just to get there. I realized when I placed 11th in the 5000m at the 2012 London Olympics (a result I was not happy with) that it’s one of the more or less invisible spots. So are the ones who don’t make it past the prelim, or the injured ones that get left at home.  It seems athletes are heralded for making an Olympic team, but when you come home without a medal, people wonder if you were even there.

I hope that a clean up will help the less visible athletes come into their rightful light. Maybe by giving attention to some of these stories to begin with, the desperation to cheat all the way to the top may lose some potency. I do think the media’s love of scandal and apparent boredom with profiling good and uplifting athlete narratives does some damage to the opinions of the viewers, who assume this must be the takeaway from it all. Lauren Fleshman stated it well: “If we change the rubric for how we select our heroes in sport, how we report and reward it to include more than winning, we can save it.”

Some Numbers

We will likely never know the true stats on this but I think a majority of athletes present at the Olympics are clean. For reference, check out this 2011 Daegu World Champs drug survey suggesting 29% of athletes implied drug use. It should be better, but dispels the catastrophizing thought that “everyone is doing it”.  However, I assumed the medal positions would be where the PED users were concentrated, but the only stat I found suggests 30%. Again, an unacceptable number but one I actually thought would be  higher, and wonder if it differs across events. The point here is that sport is not beyond saving and a clean up should not be impossible if it’s really attempted.

Amazing Exists

There are truly amazing athletes who still break into medals completely clean. It’s less common, against the odds, and that much more inspiring. As a clean athlete in a clean circle, I know a lot more about these people than the how things work in the underbelly of track and field. State sponsored programs and covered up positive tests are rumors that reach and dismay us but I have not ever actually seen or experienced these scenarios so it’s hard to talk about it with any accuracy.  I feel many of the clean athletes are similarly insulated from this darker side of the sport because who you associate with can be incriminating.  What I do know is that if a really talented athlete can give themselves a few years of smart consistent training, savvy racing and some luck in his or her event, a medal is not impossible. However, in this climate it may be a rare moment in a career, as scarce and precious as the metal it’s rewarded with.  On the other hand, when an athlete shows utter world domination year after year and/or are from a country whose federations are non-compliant with WADA (not just Russia),  I can’t help but have questions.

Hopeful News

I consider this cascade of uncovered doping programs a hopeful time. Problems must be acknowledged before they can be fixed, and ideally the recent action at least strikes fear and paranoia into the cocksure psyches of the officials, managers, coaches and athletes responsible for the doping programs. The clean athletes always knew the doping problem existed; that’s why I don’t first meet this news with shock or disappointment but rather anticipation of better days ahead. To uncover even terrible problems and hopefully initiate action against them is only bad news for those who were in denial or trying to hide them.  I’m hoping that this is one of the cleaner Olympics in recent history, and that every clean athlete on team USA can feel like they have a shot to do something great in August, rather than get creamed in an honestly ball-busting effort only to be told they didn’t appear to be trying when they couldn’t keep up with a notoriously shady group of athletes.

It’s Not the End

I have heard it asked, will these scandals kill the Olympic games by turning off sponsors and viewers?

I don’t see why everyone’s immediate reaction would be to give up.  Even if some big names are missing, there will always be someone to win and handle that stardom their own way ; it’d be great if they were clean, let’s give them that shot.

The clean athletes will always show up.  They are the ones who have endured, often without realistic hope for glory, but showed up anyway while sometimes not making a living from the sport (depending on the event). They have learned in loss to be fueled a bit less by ethereal dreams of medals, but mainly by self improvement, valuing the olympic ideals and for pure love of the game. There are a lot of these athletes!

The olympics are a big deal. It is a unique converging of nations that’s meant  to rise above whatever political and economic battles are being waged between them. It’s only 2 weeks every 4 years, which makes it an epic event that will always draw  lot’s of eyeballs, and therefore strong sponsorships. Also, various drug and legal scandals haven’t seemed to kill other sports in the US, like baseball or football.

The Worst Idea

Then there is the suggestion that “Drugs should be allowed, people do them anyway”.  No. this is a flip and ignorant statement.

Firstly, you would be risking athletes lives even if it was medically supervised. There is no way that stuff’s healthy, the long term effects are uncertain and the stakes would likely become scarily high as to how much of how many substances one person can take.

Secondly, it would be even harder to compete clean than it already is, necessitating the unfair ultimatum for many athletes of ‘quit or take drugs’ (which is NOT the case in track and field today. There may exist the ultimatum of  ‘drugs to WIN or accept whatever you can naturally do’, but that is a different story and it doesn’t threaten your very survival in the sport.)

Thirdly you would deter many good people from even joining the sport as kids because what parent would be ok with that future, no matter how slim the odds of having spawned a world class athlete ?

Finally, it would remove what semblance of pure hearted inspiration is left in sport and replace it with the shallow shock value of who can be most super-human. That may be as much a tragedy as the death of an athlete from an EPO overdose. Because it would be the death of a construct, it would be the end of Sport as a metaphor for life, the end of uplifting tales like the victorious yet scrappy underdogs that we can internalize and apply to the adversities in our non-sporting lives. The Olympics is not just entertainment, it’s also a showcase of inspiration, hope, strength and will.  I would hate to see what already obscured true Olympic heroes we have chased away from the arena all together, because that they’re still there at all is the light in all of this.

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