Amidst all the recent scandals in sport (FIFA and the World cup selection process being the first that comes to mind), Track and Field was hit recently with a damning article by David Epstein. In it, he makes doping allegations against one of our sports biggest and most successful groups, the Nike Oregon Project. He interviews athletes and coaches formerly associated with the NOP, and even includes photo evidence that some of their athletes have taken banned substances in the past.
Sadly, none of this is really surprising news to those who have been following the sport the past couple years. As with any sport, meteoric rises and rapid improvements in performance will always be met with skepticism. When Mo Farah and Galen Rupp sprinted to gold and silver in the 10,000m at the last olympics, the casual fans of the sport watched in amazement. Others however (myself included), shook their heads in disbelief, wondering how these two (admittedly very talented) runners went from mid-pack at worlds to Olympic champions.
While the BBC exposé and Epstein article did not include a real smoking gun proving the guilt of those associated with the Salazar group, it did show that they’re not afraid to push the limits and really take advantage of the rules (or lack thereof). Allegations were made that those in the group are encouraged to get diagnosed for thyroid deficiencies, exercise induced asthma, severe allergies, and illnesses that would (under the rules of the IAAF and WADA) allow you to take the otherwise illegal medication that might have performance benefits. To clarify, this is not technically cheating. However, in my opinion, it really calls for some reform in the TUE (therapeutic use exemption) process. At this time, all that’s required is for an athlete to find a doctor willing to sign off on a need for medication with potential physiological benefits (ie. thyroid medication, inhalers), and you’ve got yourself an advantage over those who aren’t taking the medication. While the performance benefits of all this medication might only add up to a fraction of a percentage, at the world class level, even the smallest advantage makes an enormous difference.
We don’t know the full story of what’s going on in Salazar group, and we might never know. Yes, they could be engaging in more serious violations of the rules. However, there’s been no real evidence of that, so if tampering with the TUE system is all they’re guilty of, then morality is needed to decide if what they’re doing is wrong. Personally, I find nothing wrong with exploring possible performance enhancers, so long as it’s not explicitly breaking the laws. Track and Field at the professional level is extremely cutthroat, especially when you realize that there’s a real income inequality in the sport (huge financial incentives for world champions, not much for anyone below that). I understand the pressure, and sympathize for who are trying to maximize their potential. Again, in no way do I encourage or support cheating. However, if you’re good enough to have the best resources at your disposal, including doctors and training aids like altitude houses and other leading technology, I see no reason why you shouldn’t take advantage of it.
The second reason I sympathize with them is that, in the end, I’m a huge fan of the sport, and I try my best to assume that the stars are simply a product of hard work and dedication. If I became a cynic and made assumptions about the cleanliness of all world class runners, I’d have little ambition to continue pursuing this career myself. I’ve looked up to Centro ever since he was in high school, and even when I eventually became good enough to race against him every so often, I was inspired by his tactical awareness and confidence in races. The other reason I continue to have hope is that the allegations implicate Cam Levins, a stand-up Canadian who I’ve only heard positive things about. I’ve totally bought into the humble, hard-working, high mileage persona he’s got going, and it’d be unfair to not hold him to the same standards as the rest of the group.
With all this being said, this feels remarkably similar to how I felt towards all the Lance Armstrong allegations in the late 2000’s. Even when the evidence became insurmountable, and teammate after teammate testified against him, I maintained a state of denial until Lance finally threw up the white flag on Oprah in 2012. While I do believe that if there’s smoke there’s fire, I’m trying my best to avoid denouncing or discrediting their achievements until we’re presented with more concrete evidence.
In unrelated news, I’m writing this while on the flight out to British Columbia where I’ll be racing in Vancouver and Victoria on Monday and Wednesday. The first race presents my last real good shot at qualifying for the Pan Am games, so I’m really excited for it. Two years ago, I ran my PB of 3:38.2. Last year, I flew out here and then spent 7 days in the hospital with brain swelling. An experience more similar to the former would be very much appreciated!
I’ve raced twice since my last blog entry. A 1500 in Windsor in 3:41.2, and then a 1500 at home in Guelph in 3:40.5. While I would have been happy with those times in University, I’m now trying to do this professionally, and always have that World and Olympic standard of 3:36 firmly in my sights. Anything short of that time will always leave me dissatisfied. Here’s hoping I can cut closer to that mark in the coming few days!