Are shot-putters facing extinction? Like the dinosaurs, those behemoths of an earlier time, they seem to live in a world they have outgrown. They are viewed by the rest of the track and field community as larger-than-life symbols of the sport's No. 1 public-relations problem—drug use. If some comet were to come along and wipe out all the world's shot-putters, the reaction in many quarters would be: Good riddance.
Mike Stulce knows that. Last summer Stulce, now a 23-year-old Texas A&M senior, became the first American to win an Olympic shot-put title since 1968, when another Aggie, Randy Matson, prevailed in Mexico City. Stulce was magnificent in Barcelona: Every one of his four fair puts was long enough to win the gold, and the best of them, a toss of 71'2½", beat silver medal winner Jim Doehring, who is also from the U.S., by 29¼ inches. That's the biggest winning margin in the Olympic shot put since 1900.
Stulce, however, did not enjoy his triumph. His remarkable performance was overshadowed by his past. All three medal winners, including bronze medalist Vyacheslav Lykho of the Unified Team, had previously served suspensions for drug use. When Stulce and Doehring, 31, who lives in Fallbrook, Calif., appeared before the Press, they were as downcast is any Olympic medalists lave ever been. They knew what was coming. "You could just read it off some of he faces," recalls Stulce.
Sure enough, when the questions turned to the puters' common history and Stulce declared that he had lever used performance-enhancing drugs, the response vas skepticism. "Please say why we should believe you," called out one member of he press. Stulce knew better than to try.
Suspicion has continued to dog him. Instead of being swamped with endorsement offers the way many Olympic gold medalists are, Stulce literally could not buy his way into a single European meet after the Games. Citing what Stulce calls "the cloud of negative propaganda" that hovers around the shot, promoters told him to stay home. Stulce offered to pay his own way, but the answer was still no. World-record holder Randy Barnes, whose two-year suspension for testing positive for methlytestosterone had officially ended on Aug. 7, got the same cold shoulder. Nobody wanted either of them.
Stulce wrote to four shoe companies, asking them not for the guaranteed contracts they routinely offer stars, but just for performance bonuses. Each one turned him down. "No one wants shot-putters," says Stulce, who actually had to buy the shoes he competed in during the Olympics.
Although throwers are hardly the only track and field athletes who have tested positive for drugs—for example, Ben Johnson—they do seem to benefit more conspicuously from steroid use than do other athletes. As a result, throwers are easy targets for antidrug sentiment. "They get the brunt of it," says Garry Hill, editor of Track & Field News. "They may not be using it more than other athletes, but their improvement is so obvious."
Hill predicts a gloomy future for the shot. "This is a critical year," he says. "Money is tight in Europe, and most meet promoters are running scared. The last thing they want is guys turning up positive at their meets. I'll be surprised if you even find the shot at a meet in Europe this summer."
Throwers are expendable to a promoter because they don't sell tickets the way milers or jumpers or sprinters do. When a thrower disappears to serve a suspension—even a world-record holder like Barnes or a gold medal winner like Stulce—no one is all that bothered. "The shot is not something people do in their leisure time, so it's easy to kick around," says Barnes. "It isn't a real glamorous event."
That hasn't always been true. The shot enjoyed the spotlight in the U.S. briefly during the early '70s, thanks to such putters as Al Feuerbach and Brian Oldfield, huge men whose expansive personalities matched the spirit of those rebellious days. But, says Gary England, president of American Big Guys, a club of throwers to which both Stulce and Barnes belong, "The times today don't lend themselves to wild-and-crazy shot-putters."