Note: I don’t know all the facts, but from what I’ve read, this is my opinion. I’d love to hear yours, differing or otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, this topic is outrageous enough to be worth discussing and debating. In the end, the public guides policy. Please feel free to comment below.
In case you missed it, USATF selected convicted doper Dennis Mitchell as the head relays coach for the IAAF World Relays (which happens this weekend in the Bahamas). Oh yeah, and his wife Damu Cherry-Mitchell is also a convicted doper, and on staff. LetsRun did a piece on the background, and made it very clear, with about 12 mentions, that giving the highest coaching honor in America this year to a convicted doper who coaches a convicted doper (Justin Gatlin) is a bad idea. I would have to agree. I have my personal thoughts on why. But before I share them, further props to Let’s Run for entertaining us with the backstory that Dennis Mitchell was named head coach once before, garnering a massive public outcry, and USATF cleared it up by saying, “no not THAT Dennis Mitchell! This OTHER Dennis Mitchell from Akron!” I don’t know either Dennis Mitchell personally, and who knows, maybe Dennis #2 was always the intended pick, but I smile imagining the USATF employee who solved this initial PR disaster by googling “Dennis Mitchell Coach” to find a magical workaround after the PED’s hit the fan.
Jill Geer, the public affairs officer for USATF, defended the selection because Coach Mitchell has paid his dues, etc. One might think this seems very forgiving, and like a nice second chance for Coach Mitchell. Just like other athletes I know who have been busted for doping, they are good hearted people who fucked up. It happens. I’m not going to advocate for spitting on them in public or burning them at the stake. People mess up all the time in life. But the highest coaching honor in the sport should never ever be given to a convicted doper. This appointment appears to have been made by Max Seigel himself basically, with members of the selection committee coming out that they weren’t given a voice in the matter. So basically my beef here is with Max.
I’m sure Max hasn’t thought this through entirely. Back when I first started as a pro, USATF had a MAJOR image issue worldwide surrounding doping. Marion Jones, Regina Jacobs, and tons of others were exposed as cheating, (like major big time blatant cheating) as part of the Balco scandal. As a new pro I heard all kinds of things about how USATF had been covering up positive tests from American athletes for years. Regina Jacobs, just before she was done for drugs, passed on her spot on Team USA due to a mysterious virus…excuses like that seemed to be commonplace. Realizing that the entire world could never again trust an American performance, and nobody wanted to pay for TV rights to a dirty-ass sport, USATF launched a major campaign around a new “Zero Tolerance Policy.” Everything about it meant serious business. It indicated that USATF would commit to making us the most tested athletes in the world, and we would commit to outing anyone and everyone in the name of restoring faith to the sport.
Zero Tolerance was a big deal to me. It indicated that my governing body cared about restoring our image. It sent a strong message to an impressionable, high achieving me, and influenced my decisions to remain clean. I am part of a generation that has been tested a zillion times more than any group before me. It’s been a pain in the ass but worth it. People would still cheat, but now it would be harder and the world knew it. USATF would out you, even if you were our biggest star, and they backed it up with actions. Should I be lucky enough to win an Olympic Medal, I wanted the chance to do so without the global assumption that I was dirty and USATF was covering up for me. It meant that anyone who represented the USA would be under a microscope. That, for the sake of all of our reputations, we would not be put side to side with cheaters and look guilty by association. As a clean athlete, this meant everything to me.
So here is what honoring coach Mitchell as head coach does to Team USA. It sends a global message that USATF is willing to overlook a cheaters past and give them the highest honor in our sport. It shows that they are no longer following their Zero Tolerance policy. It shows that Team USA is soft on drugs. That we don’t take doping seriously. Frankly it’s something I’d expect from Turkey or Russia or the USA of the 80’s, but not the USATF of the past 8 years. It’s like putting someone who has formerly served time for fraud in charge of your bank. Or a convicted child abuser in charge of your day care. Even if Dennis Mitchell has paid the price for his actions in the past, there is simply no place for him as a national team coach. He effects the reputation of every single clean athlete he is associated with. He casts a shadow on USATF as a whole. I wish him a fantastic life, but I don’t want him or his wife involved in my sport in any position of influence or leadership.
Max, since you seem to have executive power on most everything, please draw the line. You need to be the strictest of all when it comes to zero tolerance of doping, or you screw us all.