I haven’t written any articles on this site about the steroid issues in track, mainly because, fortunately, there haven’t been many cases of it in the hurdling events. The only American hurdlers I know of who have tested positive are Larry Wade and Tony Dees. But with stars like Allen Johnson and Terrence Trammell for the past decade, it can be said that the 110 hurdles are one of the cleanest events in the sport. That’s what I’d like to think anyway. And 400h stars Bershawn Jackson, Kerron Clement, James Carter also seem to be examples of cleanliness. Same on the women’s side. Lashinda Demus, Tiffany Williams, Sheena Johnson, and young Nicole Leach in the 400s. Michelle Perry and Virginia Powell in the 100s.
In the interviews I’ve done and conversations I’ve had with professional athletes, it’s become obvious to me that they don’t like talking about drug scandals. I can’t blame them. It takes away from their accomplishments, and they resent the sometimes unspoken guilt-by-association tag. Running track is how they make their living, and they devote enormous amounts of time and energy in honing their bodies and minds into a state of conditioning that will optimize their performance.
To have all that toil sneered at and scoffed at by those who only view the sport on the surface of newspaper headlines and internet message boards can be very frustrating and disheartening. Asafa Powell is running as fast as Justin Gatlin was, Gatlin got busted, so Powell must be dirty too, right? Now you got Tyson Gay running crazy times. Where’d he come from? He must be dirty too. Jeremy Wariner – a white boy running 43s? He must be on something. That’s how jaded the general public has become. Unfortunately, that’s also how jaded many track fans have become.
When the Tour de France rolls around every summer, the talk of scientific cheating in cycling becomes the big news for a good two-week period. All you ever hear about, if you don’t really follow the sport, is how this guy got busted for this, that guy got busted for that, this guy from back in the day claims everybody does it, etc. So, to someone like me, who only hears about cycling when it’s mentioned on ESPN, cycling is drugs. Sadly, people who don’t follow track closely look at our sport the same way. In that sense, the cheaters are doing some serious, serious damage to the sport.
One argument I’ve heard that really alarms me is that performance-enhancing drugs should just be allowed across the board. I understand the argument, but I’m not feeling it. The point such people make is that you can’t clean it up now. It’s gone too far. Once the genie is out of the bottle you can’t stuff it back in. So let’s just let all athletes have unfettered access to whatever chemical enhancement they can find. The more money you’re willing to pay, the more drugs you’ll be able to get. The more drugs you’re able to get, the more medals you’ll be able to win. The more medals you’re able to win, the more money you’ll be able to make. And it’s all about the money anyway, right?
No, it’s not. I look to Kelli White as the best example of an athlete who went down the wrong path but ultimately redeemed herself and saved her personal integrity. The winner of the 100 and 200 at the 2003 World Championships in Paris who later tested positive for modafinil, White would go on to admit to full-scale drug use and accept a two-year ban without protest. White made hundreds of thousands of dollars, but lost herself in the process. “I had to compromise my integrity,” she told USA Today in December of 2004, “my value system. I knew it was so wrong. I look at that person and I’m like, ‘That’s not Kelli White. That’s not who I am, who I started out to be.’”
I wish more athletes who have damaged the sport by cheating would come clean like White did. Like many track fans, I’m tired of conspiracy theories, tired of lies, tired of denials. Your boy Ben Johnson still claims someone spiked his drink, still claims he doesn’t know how the steroids got into his system. Come on, man, your eyes were yellow, for crying out loud. Just admit to what you did and move on.
The biggest losers in all of this are the kids who are new to the sport, moving up the ranks, and who look up to the professional athletes as the models of what they may want to become themselves. When I was growing up and learning the sport, I had athletes like Renaldo Nehemiah, Edwin Moses, Greg Foster, Roger Kingdom, and Tonie Campbell to look up to. These guys were warriors on the track, but they were clean as a washing machine. I could watch Edwin Moses set a world record and say to myself, “I want to be like him, I want to do what he does” without fear that I’d find out the next day that he cheated to do it.
As Moses himself wrote in a recent article, “To reach the pinnacle of my event, the 400 metres hurdles – and to stay there without ceding victory, as I did, for nearly a decade – I did not need or want to use performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, I trained smart and hard to get to and stay at the top. Over more than ten years I logged a minimum of 15,000 miles on the track, beaches and cross-country trails, utilized a strict diet tailored to high performance and recovery (a regimen I maintain to this day) and focused my complete attention on the task at hand, living and breathing the entire training process every single day. I invented a training regimen that included stretching, flexibility development and dynamic exercise techniques. And I was willing to deal with – for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years – the intense and relentless discomfort that comes from training mercilessly, two or three times a day. Through sheer focus and willpower, I made sure that the harder and more painful it got, the faster I became.”
I was fortunate to have Moses as one of the athletes I could look up to. The bottom line is, we can’t allow our kids to become jaded. We can’t allow them to think that the only way to win, the only way to keep up with the competition, is to cheat. If we allow that to happen, we are failing the next generation, and they will become the monsters that we create.
One thing that disconcerts me is that there are so many things on the market nowadays that are designed to give athletes a competitive edge. Back in my day, we had plain old yellow Gatorade and plain old vitamins. Nowadays, you can go into your local nutrition store and load up on energy drinks and super-duper heavy-loaded supplements at your heart’s content. I guess I’m old school because I don’t know when everything became so high-tech. Seems to me that the companies producing these goods are taking advantage of a consumer base that feels the need to get better now. So we spend and we spend, looking for that magic elixir, the secret potion that will make us the best in the world, the best in the nation, the best in the state, the best in the conference, the best on the block.
As Kelli White found out, none of it is worth it. While you’re going through it, it certainly seems like it is. You’re running faster times, setting new pr’s, winning races against people who used to beat up on you, making more money, gaining access to a lifestyle that was previously out of your reach.
But in the process you become an ugly being, filled with fear and self-loathing. Because what it really comes down to is, there’s a part of each of us that knows that anything gained unfairly doesn’t really belong to us, that any success won through cheating doesn’t really fulfill us.
© 2007 Steve McGill