It's hard to feel sorry for USATF
Posted: Friday December 12, 2003 4:07PM; Updated: Friday December 12, 2003 4:07PM
With the Summer Olympics booked for Athens next summer, the track and field crowd is already steaming. They're getting ripped after a batch of positive drug tests, which raises all sorts of wonderful issues -- like, say, how believable are the glitzy marks in the record books? And sponsors, normally cozy on the eve of the Summer Games, are turning a cold shoulder.
Try as we might, it's hard to feel too sorry.
Sitting in on the recent USA Track and Field convention, top leadership would like you to believe their runners, jumpers and throwers are the cleanest athletes in the world. OK, champion miler Regina Jacobs and sprint champ Kelli White reportedly stand among a handful accused of doping. (It should be noted USATF refuses to confirm the positives, citing the need for due process.) But if you really want cheaters, well, track athletes and officials are quick to point to the bad boys in pro baseball and football, the millionaires with the pumped bodies and, in some cases, inflated stats.
You've probably caught glimpses of these characters parading before the San Francisco grand jury in the Balco Lab probe. Guys like Barry Bonds and one-time training buddy Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Tyrone Wheatley and Bill Romanowski, just to name a few.
Of course, the Marion Jones-Tim Montgomery sprint team has also chatted up the grand jury. But that, too, seems lost on the track crowd.
"What people need to understand is track and field is the most policed of all sports [for drugs]," said sprinter Jon Drummond, whose antics at the last Olympics and World Championships have turned him into the ugly American poster child. "Let's go and test baseball. Let's test football. You already got the [designer steroid] THG test on all these other sports -- and you're talking about one team [the Oakland Raiders] having four athletes. We may have only five or six in our whole federation. Is that fair to say how widespread it is in track and field? It is not as big as it is in other sports. We're just policed more because we are true sport."
We'll let others weigh in on the definition of sport. We'll also acknowledge that it's not just PR spin when you hear the Drummonds and Maurice Greenes of the world are on call 24-7 for drug testing. Heck, track athletes probably are the most tested.
But even if you're required to pee in a bottle twice a day, what does it matter if there are stealth performance-enhancers that slide under the testing radar?
The drug of the hour, THG, is a designer substance few knew existed until a few months ago. Virtually undetectable, it was discovered only after a disgruntled coach blew its cover. And from everything we hear from athletes and sports scientists, it's a fair guess that other designer steroids also are in circulation.
USATF head Craig Masback acknowledges there may be pockets of athletes associated with certain lab gurus and certain coaches tied to doping. But he rightly cautions it is a world problem, not just an American issue.
That leads to the question: Can the dopers in sports be fully eradicated? Never. What we're looking at is a constant race by chemists to stay ahead of testing advancements, to uncover masking agents and play with molecular structures in creating performance-enhancers that defy detection.
"People will always cheat," said John Chaplin, the 2000 U.S. men's Olympic track coach. "Remember, if you can, when you were 18. You couldn't die. And nothing could happen. And you told yourself everybody else was doing it. Now they rationalize that [steroids] are just a little edge, right? No different than lifting weights or running twice a day -- just a degree. So sure it'll go on. The rewards are too great and the risk too small."
Who ends up getting hurt is the clean athletes, which you'd like to think is the overwhelming majority. They're caught pondering what the competition is up to, while at the same time being painted with the broad brush of guilt by association. And so, in an Olympic year, sponsors are staying on the sidelines as the scandal unfolds, wondering who'll next be taken down by a drug test.
"Sponsors don't come right out and ask, but they'll say 'There is nobody you represent, Mr. Hudson, that we need to worry about?'" said Emanuel Hudson, an attorney who heads up the HSI track group. "If a sponsor is asking you that they are thinking that. And when they're making decisions as to who they want to use for a promotion or who they want to retain, maybe they say, 'You know what, let's go get this skateboarder instead, 'cause we don't have to worry about skateboarders.'"
That's only more reason for the sport to clean up its act.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.