For most of my life I’ve been a big fan of elite-level track and field. Now I’m not. And the reason is simple: drugs. Because of performance-enhancing drug use, and the greed and ambition that inspires it, our sport is dying a slow death, propelling itself into the realm of irrelevancy. The list of fallen heroes who have been busted, implicated, or who have admitted to drug use despite never failing a drug test includes some of the greatest track athletes of all time. Ben Johnson, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Kelli White. And it’s hard to believe that Flo-Jo with her 10.49 never used drugs. Maurice Greene’s name has come up in articles. Ben Johnson’s old coach, Charlie Francis, said in his book Speed Trap that it’s impossible to be an elite level sprinter and not use drugs. He went so far as to say that an elite-level coach who doesn’t offer his athletes the opportunity to use performance-enhancers is doing them a disservice, putting them at an insurmountable disadvantage. To hear Francis say it, there’s no reason to believe that any medal-winning and/or record-holding sprinter going back into the 1960s was clean.
I used to be an idealist. I believed athletes who said they were clean. I included myself among those who assumed that only those athletes who had been caught had cheated, that the sport had no real problem with drug abuse. I believed every lie that Marion Jones told. I sided with her when she called USADA a puppet court (or something to that affect), I tried to explain to doubters that Jones had always been fast since her high school days, that she had not shown the unusual gain of muscle mass and definition associated with steroid use, that she had progressed through the years the way that an athlete of her caliber should. Despite all the rumors and stories and pieces of evidence pointing to the contrary, I believed her. When, in 2008, she finally admitted to taking drugs prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, I didn’t feel betrayed; I felt stupid.
Marion Jones, once a symbol of glory, now symbolizes all that is wrong with the sport.
That’s why this idealist has become a skeptic. I now go by the guilty-until-proven-innocent credo. After reading Francis’ book, as well as Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, detailing the Balco scandal of the early 2000s, in addition to reading numerous articles in various magazines and online sites over the past couple years, I’m beginning to believe that very few elite track athletes can be called “clean” in any literal sense. I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but I’ve outgrown being surprised. If any great track athlete, past or present, were to be revealed a drug cheat, my response would be to shrug my shoulders. The only untouchables for me are Renaldo Nehemiah and Edwin Moses, because they were my heroes growing up. But if anyone else is or was dirty, I’ll get over it.
Track will never have the appeal for me that it did in the days of my youth. I’m jaded now. How inspiring it was to watch Edwin Moses swallow up ground on that 400-meter oval without having to worry about hearing a news report the next day that he had tested positive for a banned substance. Those days are gone. My relationship with the sport now is strictly that of a coach who gives his all to his athletes, that of a knowledgeable figure who shares that knowledge with as many people who are seeking it. I really couldn’t give a damn about track’s popularity with the general public. Part of the reason I was attracted to track to begin with back in high school was because not every Tom Joe and Hank thinks he knows everything about it, like they think they know everything about football and basketball. I don’t need to be where all the noise is; I prefer to keep away from it. Track’s remoteness fit my quiet personality, and it still does. I don’t need to see track on TV every weekend to feel that track has “arrived.” Seeing my athletes out there training every day is all the validation I need. But yes, if I’m to be a fan, I need to know that what I’m watching is real, that it’s the result of hard work and athletic ability, without the benefit of illegal substances. When I can’t watch a meet with the assurance that what I’m watching is real, I don’t want to watch anymore. That’s where I am with track right now.
To a lot of people, the question is, What’s the big deal? Why all the uproar and protest over the “immorality” of drug use? I’ve even read articles in which the claim has been made that performance-enhancers of all kinds should be legalized, that even coffee, in the strictest sense of the term, could be considered a performance-enhancer, that there’s no such thing as “cheating” because it’s impossible to draw the line between “natural” and “enhanced.” Without proof that drug use, if done intelligently and under a physician’s guidance, can lead to any long-term health issues, why not level the playing field by adopting an anything-goes policy instead of continually playing this cat-and-mouse game in which the drug testers constantly try to stay one step ahead of the drug cheats, only to continually fall one step behind? Balco mogul Victor Conte has even been quoted as saying that testing positive is more a reflection of one’s IQ than one’s integrity. In other words, everybody cheats, but very few are dumb enough to get caught.
But I don’t buy the argument that since everybody cheats, it should be made legal. I’m a high school English teacher. What if I walked into the classroom one day and said to my students, “Since so many of you know how to cheat so well and it’s impossible to catch all of you, I’m gonna let all of you cheat as much as you want”? Yes, the performances of my students would dramatically improve, but what life lessons would I have taught them? In what ways would I have challenged them to grow as people? In what ways would I have taught them the value of trying, and failing, and trying again? So, even if my students were to excel, even if those observing from the outside were to praise me for my students’ success, I would have failed as a teacher. Any society in which cheating is acceptable is a dysfunctional society. Any society that values material wealth and ego-based self-satisfaction over personal integrity is a society gone mad. Sports, unfortunately, have become part of the madness, not an escape from it.
The core question is, What is the purpose of sport? Why do we play sports? Why do we coach sports? Why do we watch sports? Why do we strive to improve? Why do we cheer for our hometown teams? Why do we set goals and work to achieve them? Why do we dream big dreams and set out to make them a reality? Why do we care? Why do sports matter?
As a society, we have decided that the purpose of sport is to serve as a vehicle through which we can prove our superiority over others. That’s why we have adopted inane yet widely embraced mantras such as “second place is the first loser,” and “winning is everything.” Someone like Terrence Trammell, for example, wins more silver medals than anyone in the history of the 110 hurdles, and he’s defined as a loser. The Buffalo Bills reach four super bowls in the early 1990s, but because they don’t win any of them, they’re defined as losers. Bobby Knight chokes his own players and throws chairs at referees, yet is revered because he won national championships. Michael Jordan belittles and berates teammates and yet is worshipped as a god because he won six NBA titles. Muhammad Ali calls one of his opponents a gorilla and yet is adored for his charisma because he won the heavyweight crown. Even Terrell Owens, the ultimate narcissist, would probably be an icon of athletic supremacy were he wearing a super bowl ring on his finger.
Now I’m not saying that Knight wasn’t a great coach, or that Jordan and Ali weren’t great athletes. What I am saying is that we venerate them for their success, not for their greatness. Ali’s attacks on Frazier, in the build-up to the Thrilla in Manila in 1975, were mean-spirited and vicious. By bringing a little gorilla doll with him to pre-fight news conferences and playfully beating on it as if it were Frazier, he went way beyond the accepted parameters of pre-fight hype. He wasn’t just joking around; his intent was to humiliate Frazier, to make him into a beast-like villain in the eyes of the public. Not cool at all. But Ali won the fight, arguably the greatest fight in the history of boxing, and he proved himself an absolute warrior in the process. So we laugh off the gorilla jokes and admire the champion. Very convenient.
As a society, we like to claim that we believe that the journey, not the destination, is what matters most. But we don’t really believe that. We believe that the destination is all that matters. So if you get there – if you win the championship, the super bowl, the world series, the gold medal, then we don’t really care how you got there, what you did to earn it. Remember the old saying, Cheaters never win? The truth is, in our society, cheaters win quite often.
Which leads to the argument that I’ve heard some athletes make: if I’m losing to cheaters, then the only way I have a chance to win is to cheat. I cannot deny the validity of that argument. If you’re Joe Blow and you lose the gold medal to John Doe by two hundredths of a second, and you know John Doe cheated to beat you, then the obvious conclusion you would draw is that you have to cheat in order to compete. So, by cheating, you’re leveling the playing field, which is quite justifiable. Of course, this is the logic that has led to the problem reaching epidemic proportions in the modern era of sport. Why did Barry Bonds start taking HGH and an assortment of other performance-enhancing drugs? Because he was tired of cheaters like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire stealing all the homerun glory. What prompted Ben Johnson to go on the juice? His coach’s assertion that his American rivals, namely Carl Lewis, were on juice and that the American governing bodies were covering it up. A lot of times, athletes cheat because they feel they have to, because they see no other option, not because they’re inherently bad people.
Ben Johnson won the 1988 Olympic 100 meter dash in a world record 9.79, but was stripped of the award after testing positive for an anabolic steroid the next day.
To get back to my English class analogy, if I have a class of twenty-five students, and seven of them are cheating regularly, and the other eighteen are aware of it, the other eighteen are eventually going to decide that they too must cheat. Or else they won’t be able to compete for admission into the best colleges; they won’t be able to compete for academic scholarships; they won’t be able to compete for admission into highly selective honors programs. Cheating breeds cheating. It always works that way.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is money. There wouldn’t be so much cheating if there weren’t so much money at stake. In a sport like track, there’s only so much money to go around. There are a whole lot of starving athletes out there with Olympic dreams, trying to keep those dreams afloat by training at odd hours while working part-time jobs, living on a diet of hotdogs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sleeping on air mattresses, renting small apartments, and keeping hope alive. There are plenty of athletes who do have contracts but are still counting on earning prize money at major meets to supplement their income, because the shoe contract only pays them enough to train, not to live. So, if you’re only a couple hundredths away from a shoe contract, or from more prize money, or from making it to the victory stand at a major championship, the temptation to cheat is enormous.
In the case of Major League Baseball, it could be argued that the juice era saved the sport. Before McGwire and Sosa’s love-fest homerun derby in 1998, baseball was critically ill. The 1994 strike that obliterated that year’s world series had turned fans off to the point where they had actually stopped coming to the games. McGwire and Sosa brought the game back from the brink. Do you think the powers that be didn’t know that McGwire and Sosa were juicing when they both smashed the homerun record, when they both hit a whole bunch more homers than either had ever hit in his career? Do you think they didn’t know that Bonds was juicing when he hit 73 homers with his head growing to the size of a watermelon? Of course they knew, but the money was pouring in, and they weren’t about to stop the gravy train.
My disillusionment with sports extends far beyond track and field. I grew up a huge fan of professional sports. Raised in suburban Philadelphia, I attended Phillies games, 76er games, and I also followed the Eagles with fervor. I still follow my home teams, even though I don’t live there anymore, but my interest for professional sports in general has dwindled. I can remember a time when I could watch both games of an NBA doubleheader without getting bored. I remember a time when I could watch NFL football all day on Sundays, including the pre-game and post-game analyses. Now I can barely sit through a whole game of any sport, at any level. It’s all too corporate now. Too profit-driven.
Brian Westbrook, a star running back for the Eagles over the past several seasons, may have to retire due to chronic knee problems. Meanwhile, he also suffered two concussions during the season that just finished. Meanwhile, Eagle fans are outraged (yet again) that the home team fell short of its super bowl dreams and are wondering what we’ve gotta do to get over the damn hump. Personally, I feel more than a bit guilty about feeling upset that they got bounced out of the playoffs by the Cowboys. When I think of how a warrior like Westbrook might not ever be able to walk right again, and may face the possibility of headaches and dizzy spells and perhaps worse for the rest of his life, what gives me the right to be upset about the Eagles losing a football game?
Westbrook will be replaced, as all players are replaced, and the show will go on. And all the fans and critics and sportswriters who spent so much time talking about him will find other players to talk about. None of us really cared about him to begin with; we just wanted him to satisfy our own lust for more victories and the chance to brag that our team is the best in the world.
Westbrook serves as an example of how the physical demands placed on athletes are simply too much. In track, it’s definitely gotten out of hand. Elite athletes are expected to run fast all the time, which in itself is unnatural. The body cannot handle the stress put on it by running at top speeds on a regular basis. But with contracts on the line, endorsement and prize money up for grabs, and the lure of bonuses that come with breaking records, it becomes essential for elite athletes to be on their A-game 100% of the time. And the only way to peak all year long is to take performance-enhancing drugs. As any athlete will tell you, the drugs don’t directly enhance performance; you don’t juice up one day and then go out and run a world record the next. Instead, the drugs enable you to train harder, with shorter recovery periods, with less chance of injury, so that your more severe training regimen is what enables you to stay strong for the long haul. And with money on the line, with careers at stake, you have to stay strong for the long haul. So the system is set up in such a way that it encourages cheating. You could even argue that it necessitates it.
But if it were just a matter of right and wrong, just a moral decision, that would be one thing. But it’s not. For many athletes, it’s also a financial decision, a career choice. In track, the difference between competing clean and competing dirty can be the difference between giving up on a dream versus keeping that dream alive. As much as I despise cheating, I realize that this is a real issue that must be addressed if the cheating is to ever stop.
Corporate monsters are the real culprits here. What does Nike care if the world record holder in the 100 meters gets busted? They can sign the next megastar and pick up where they left off. No damage done to their reputation nor to their bottom line. The NFL will continue to thrive no matter how many of its players suffer from concussions and broken bones. And on and on. The athletes, to a large degree, are the victims. They are, to quote an old rap song, “crumb snatchers in this land of big cake.” They have no real power.
So what is the true purpose of sport? Why do sports matter? There are no simple answers; to find them, we must travel deeply within ourselves. If it’s all about the money, then it’s really not about anything. As the Tao Te Ching says, “If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself.”
There has to be a deeper reason to go out there on that track every day. It’s gotta be about more than just running faster than everybody else. It’s gotta be about more than just earning an athletic scholarship and holding onto it for four years. It’s gotta be about more than signing a contract. Yes, all of those things are important, but when sport is reduced to the level of business, of commercial product, its holistic value is denigrated. Sport must elevate us spiritually – as individuals and as a society; it must raise us above our small, materialistic selves; we cannot allow it to fall into the rank and file of ordinary experiences. We cannot allow it to become part of the grind of our daily lives. The purpose of sport is to make us better people, to bring us to closer connection with that which is authentic within ourselves. We must learn to believe that if we give ourselves to our sport purely for the love of the sport, the sport will reward us in ways that are much more meaningful, much more fulfilling, much more gratifying, than any amount of money and acclaim could ever be.
I can remember, back in my college days, doing lengthy hurdle workouts by myself in which I tried to work my way through technical issues. Without a hurdle coach to provide feedback, I had to experiment a lot, I had to learn to go on feeling. When something felt right, I would try to duplicate that feeling. If something felt wrong, I would abandon it. My motto became, If it feels right, it is right. And by going with those feelings, and learning to trust them, I’d always reach a point in a workout when something “clicked”; I would find myself saying to myself, Yes, that’s how hurdling is supposed to feel; that’s the feeling I’ve been searching for all day.
That’s why hurdle workouts became sacred for me; I couldn’t find that peaceful bliss anywhere else in life. I realized late in my college career, long after it had become clear that I wasn’t good enough to continue running beyond college, that this feeling was what I had been looking for along, that no amount of success could replace this feeling. This, I realized, is what it’s all about; this is why I come out here every day; this is why I struggle through the rough workouts; this is why I come back to train after bad races that damage my confidence; this is why I’m still out here even though I know any Olympic dreams I may have had are unattainable.
This feeling, I understood, is the answer to everything. It is why I run the hurdles. I can’t search for it, can’t reach for it, can’t try to achieve it. I can only surrender to it.
It’s a lesson I’ve taken with me far into my adult life. I don’t hurdle anymore, but I run a lot of distance races, anywhere from the 5K to the marathon. As I write this essay, I’m in training for my second marathon. In preparation, I have gone on 20-mile runs three times in the past month. I’m finding that the contented feeling of fulfillment that washed over me late in hurdle workouts is the same feeling that often washes over me in the latter stages of a long run. During a run a few weeks ago, I found myself thinking to myself, This is the gift, just being out here, healthy, running. This is why I run – because I run. Simple as that.
While I’ll always believe there’s a place for competition, that, paradoxically perhaps, one of the best ways to bring out the best in oneself is to compete against others, I now understand that there’s an inner motivation that overrides all exterior ones. I now understand that the phrase, “it’s not the journey, but the destination” doesn’t take it far enough; the truth is, the journey is the destination. Once we as a society awaken to this simple truth, we will stop chasing after money and success; we will stop running away from failure and disappointment; we will cease to compare ourselves to others. We will free ourselves from superficiality, and become genuine human beings.
© 2010 Steve McGill