First Off, Thank You!

To the readers of the last blog, and to all the passionate people who commented, whether you agreed with me or not, thanks for engaging. As I hoped, fair play still means a lot to people in a variety of sports, professional and amateur alike. I learned a lot from the things you posted.

My statement that 99% of professional athletes compete clean has received more WTF’s than any other statement I made in my Letter to Lance Armstrong on Thursday. Part of this response is because many people didn’t realize that I was referring to running and triathlon, the groups that would be most affected by LA’s potential return to sport. I wasn’t talking about cycling (although the clean athletes in cycling deserve to be recognized). A few people took the 99% number literally, which was a hyperbolic number derived from my ass, not from statistical equations. Just to clear it up, my point was the vast majority are competing clean.

Others objected to my statement because of an overall cynicism about sports in general, citing cycling’s implosion, the BALCO scandal in Track and Field of the early 2000’s, and the weak attempts of baseball and football to contain their drug problem. People think, Why would running be any different? I can’t blame them. In the past few days, I’ve read several other blogs and articles to understand skepticism specific to my sport. If you want to chime in after reading, whether you agree or disagree, go for it!

Aha Moment

Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World wrote a compelling piece that turned on a lightbulb for me. As a super speedy runner of his generation in the late 60’s who competed clean, and an influential voice in running today, he states that in his day he was confident nobody around him was cheating, but if they had, he could understand why it would be tempting to join them, as Lance did. Amby’s temptation would be driven by seeing only “two options: quit or join.” The third option which he later mentions as unlikely, is to choose to “be true to yourself and sport,” concluding that for most “it would make more sense to jog 20 miles a week for your health.”

I can definitely see how Amby’s stance applies to cycling, and Lance, where cheating had been so rampant at the top, and where it was internally coordinated and kept silent by all involved. Being a snitch was not a good option when the result would be the unraveling of your entire sport, the evaporation of your income, and perhaps having your personal and professional life destroyed in court by Señor Yellow Jersey. I can even see how that stance would apply to track and field at certain points in history. But the factors facing professional runners of my generation are different than those of Amby’s, and different from cycling, which leads me to a different conclusion about my sport today.

[note: Amby and I have since had an opportunity to discuss our thoughts on this. You can read some of that discussion in the comments section of his Runners’ World article]

The Four Main Factors that make fair play a viable choice.

First of all, it is important to point out that there are over a thousand professional track and field athletes that you will rarely, if ever, see on TV, especially if all you see is the Olympics. To get an accurate picture of anything, you need to look beyond those at the very very top. We wouldn’t judge the state of our economy on a sample group from the top 3%! Ah shit, maybe that is how we judge the economy! Let’s stick to my area of expertise.

Here are four main factors, outside of increased doping controls, that I see shaping the doping perspective of today’s generation of professional American runners, (maybe other sports, you tell me) making it easier to stay clean:

Factor 1: There are significant upsides to remaining clean.

Our sport is not so far gone that all hope of winning a medal or making a name for yourself is lost without cheating, which appears to have been the case in cycling. I personally know many athletes in my sport and in triathlon who have been top 10 in the world in their event, (myself included), and some have even won medals (most of them silver or bronze) without doping. There is still a real choice and real motivation for an athlete to remain clean.

I’ll never forget how it felt in 2005 to mourn the loss of my ultimate dream to break a world record or win a gold medal, realizing for the first time that such a thing was likely impossible without drugs. It hurt like a mofo to let that dream go, and it seemed pointless for a bit. But after a year or so I broadened my definition of success for my career based on the positive, outspoken examples around me. Most of the pro athletes I know have done the same, accepting that the playing field will never be level at the very top, but in championship style competiton, we know anything can happen.

Most of us know that hard work and race tactics can still beat dopers. Many accept that our best chance at international success is sweeping past the mentally devastated, doped athletes who fall apart in the final straightaway once they realize they aren’t going to win the gold. It’s not ideal, but it’s the attitude that has allowed athletes to move from feeling sorry for themselves to achieving their honest potential, which is the whole point of sport in the first place.

Factor 2. Financial security for a greater depth of athletes.

We do not live in a country or play in a sport where ultimate success will make you exceedingly rich and famous. With very very few exceptions, medalists walk the streets in complete anonymity, and have to get jobs shortly after retiring from professional sports. This is a lot different from other nations where a medalist can be treated almost as a deity, or from the way American athletes in other sports can reach superstar status like Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, or LaBron James. With track and field being a true international sport with limited barriers to entry (you don’t even really need shoes), even with drugs it is nearly impossible to reach the level of consistant victory and fame that would make you into the next American hero. Basically I’m saying that the upside of doping dominance isn’t great enough to drag otherwise honest people onto the dark side.

Complementary to that, when a greater depth of athletes is financially supported at a reasonable level, you lose poverty as a driving force behind cheating. I believe poverty is the primary incentive behind cheating in many countries. When the only options are “get rich by winning” or “remain in poverty,” it’s a pretty straightforward choice. Significant sponsorship dollars over the past 10 years in America, (and government funding in places like the UK and Canada) have kept our best talent comfortable enough to continue to do things the right way. They may never get rich, but they will make just enough money to justify the sacrifices and commitment required to be a pro athlete. There is a change in the industry right now that may change this for the next generation, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that an intermediate level of support is crucial to help athletes be steadfast in their commitment to clean sport.

Factor 3. Social Taboo

My generation of athletes was shaped by the highly publicized drug scandals of the early 2000’s. I watched Marion Jones fall from grace as the face of a much larger doping problem. I was on the USA World Championships team with her in 2003 when most of our teammates knew she was dirty, and most wouldn’t sit with her or make eye contact, a type of ostracizing that took me by surprise. Other established pros in the athlete village spoke openly about their disgust, and it was obvious to me as a rookie that fair play was taken seriously by successful athletes in all event areas of my sport. This made a big impact on my choices as an athlete.

My generation of pros watched Marion Jones’ confession on Oprah; we watched her go to jail. While many people have made a valid point about the never-ending disgusting media circus surrounding Lance Armstrong, I would argue that these types of cultural events are critical to establishing strong social taboos for future generations of athletes. The young people are watching to see how this plays out…trust me.

Factor 4. Individual Sports are Different

In individual sports like track or triathlon, we view one another as competition first and foremost, and are more likely to be whistle blowers. It would take less than a hot minute for any woman in my event area to turn me in for cheating. If I fall, I fall alone, and my competitors benefit from my absence.

Team sports are another story. Snitching on a teammate could implicate you simply by association, destroy the reputation of your coach, and adversely affect the financial backing of your team and sport. A team environment, by nature, encourages silence. With clubs being a relatively new trend for pro runners in the USA, this is something we will need to keep an eye on. The ethics of the coach are of paramount importance, and the coach helps determine how athletes view the letter of the law vs the spirit of the law when it comes to doping.

Wrap it Up Already!

I believe athletes today are faced with three viable choices, not two, when they get their ass handed to them by a cheater:

  1. Cheat
  2. Broaden the definition of “winning” and let go of an attachment to world records and medals.
  3. Quit

Most are choosing #2. There are people who will view this as “settling,” and as a horrible degradation of sport – that it is a shame to let go of records and release our grip on gold and gold alone. Maybe. But it is also a necessary adaptation that ultimately opens the door for the best possible clean performances given certain realities in modern sport.

Weigh in folks! Which factors do you think help foster clean sport? Which factors threaten it most?