The sport of track and field is in total crisis. There is no other way to put it. The news is exposing crimes and corruption that exceed the depth and breadth of even the wildest whisperings of our sports biggest cynics. State sponsored doping, cover-ups, bribes, fake labs, dominant nations without any anti-doping agencies whatsoever, Interpol investigations, leaked lists of suspicious blood values that mix clean athletes with dirty ones, journalists publishing inaccurate information that damages reputations and makes others afraid to speak out, corrupt governing bodies, arrests, whistle blowers seeking political asylum. The list goes on. It’s an unholy mess.
The group that has been harmed most by all this corruption is the clean athletes. Some will get upgraded to long overdue medals that will be met with relief and pain in equal measure. The rest are left to trudge through a swamp of psychological rejectamenta from years of comparing their value and worth to an unreachable, fictional standard. The fans who haven’t already checked out are disgusted, and outraged, and they are looking to the athletes they follow for assurance that some of it was real, to find out which of the magical moments that moved them to watch, follow, and invest in the sport they love were worth it. Our outrage gives them a reason to believe.
But from most athletes, they get silence on the subject: a social media feed peppered with banal workout updates, and snapshots of a lifestyle that is on the verge of irrelevance.
This silence is most often interpreted as, “they must be cheating too.” Or arguably even worse, “they must not care.” What else could possibly explain the disengagement of athletes in this, and other major sport controversies?
We assume things are taken care of by the powers that be. After all, we have to report every hour of every day of our lives to anti doping agencies who can show up at any moment unannounced to take our blood and urine, so surely they must have this under control. Believing otherwise makes the daily violations of privacy and loss of freedom we tolerate in the name of clean sport unfathomable.
No, they don’t have it under control. Testing is ineffective at catching cheats. Kenya decided this month to set up an anti-doping agency for the first time. Others like Russia paid money to have positive tests covered up. The institutions that test us are incomprehensive and corruptible. Do not outsource your engagement. You need to be involved right now.
We are afraid to speak, because we aren’t confident we really know what is going on in this confusing mess, and unlike you, we need to be really confident before we open our mouths. We know that while you say you want to hear us speak, you really don’t. We learn early that if we say something outside of our area of expertise, and it isn’t 100% full proof and inarguable, we get slammed and shamed. Most of you want us to shut up and run.
And that’s fine because even the educated passionate athletes we’ve seen speaking up in the past don’t seem to get anywhere, and appear to get angrier and angrier over time. And the angrier one gets, the harder it is to put one foot in front of the other. Everyone knows anger and fear aren’t productive places to live in and do great work. In the end, all an athlete can control is herself, and get what she can out of this gift one in a million have the genetic ability, desire, work ethic, and support to pursue.
You may not get all your facts straight, but engaging in the conversation is more important. Start educating by reading this curated list of anti-doping media by Renee Anne Shirley. Follow this twitter list of #cleansport activists, and retweet and engage to learn more. We can’t just take from this sport that we love. Your experience in sport is about more than performances. You are more than your performances. Give your voice to it. The next generation is listening.
We are also afraid that the moment we start criticizing is the moment we stop being grateful, and that is the moment our success will disappear. We don’t want to break the spell, because we know that we will need all the magic we can get to reach the top in this sport, especially if we are clean. We see those who are most engaged as bitter, and sad. On the way to retirement. The’ve crossed some invisible line that moves a person from pursuit of excellence to pursuit of change, and now their best performances are behind them.
Gratitude and criticism is not an either/or. It is a both/and. They can and must coexist. Blind gratitude in today’s corruption-riddled era is a euphemism for complacency. You can’t gratitude your way to clean sport. Gratitude is not a verb. Coaches and mentors that encourage fear of engagement see you as a robot to be programmed, and buying into it stunts your development as a human being.
We tell ourselves cheating is not a problem and suspend reality as a protective mechanism. We choose to assume most are clean because otherwise it’s impossible to do the work and believe in ourselves. We don’t point fingers and don’t jump on the bandwagon when accusations come up. We don’t want to read the articles about it. We believe that even if there are cheaters, we might be able to beat them anyway. We need to believe this like we need air. We understand sports psychology, and the power of positive thinking. We will be different than the clean athletes who lost before. We are “the one.”
You will have your heart broken by cheats. You will also be able to beat them sometimes. But if you don’t acknowledge the reality of cheaters, you will hold yourself accountable to an artificial standard that will break you, in body and in mind. You will likely lose your prime years to injuries this way, and never view your greatest personal victories as enough.
We are confused when our own governing body, USATF, celebrates people who have cheated in the past, but we don’t know what to do about it. Destigmatization of the formerly banned athlete appears to be a key brand value and marketing strategy of USATF during a time of international crisis for our sport, and that confuses us. We watch them appoint former cheaters to the honor of being World and Olympic Coaches on teams we are trying to make. We watch them present 2 x banned athlete Justin Gatlin as the face of our sport at the AMA’s, with a room full of stars to choose from, and we feel like we must be missing something. And when anti-doping doesn’t make the agenda at the elite athlete summit in the face of international headlines surrounding our sport’s demise, we ask ourselves, “Are we crazy for caring? What is going on here?”
You are not crazy. We deserve better. Sign and share this petition if a commitment to clean sport is important to you, and if you’d like to have athletes and coaches with clean lifetime records be the faces of our sport.
A Culture of Assimilation
We’ve been told by CEO Max Seigel that we should not feed into bad press about the sport because it damages the sport’s reputation and makes it harder for him to get the sponsorship dollars from big companies that keep the sport alive. We are asked to be “team players” and “get on board” when concerns are raised. The culture places not only philosophical value but also monetary value on assimilation. We saw Nick Symmonds get left off the World Team. We understand what can happen if we speak up.
We call our leaders up to their best work when we engage. Anger is not a sustainable place – but constructive dialogue, and the holding of our leaders is. We need to do this both as individuals, and as a collective. As John Neal said, “A certain amount of opposition is of great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with the wind.”
The international news stories keep breaking as our sport falls apart, so we read a few articles to try to figure out what it all means. It is terrible, and confusing, and just seems to go deeper and deeper. We don’t know which sources to trust, or which agencies are empowered to fix it. There is no action plan in place for athletes, no leader to rally behind, and in the meantime nothing we say or do will affect the outcome.
So we stay silent, and wait for someone to fix it.
I was that person once. Sometimes I want to go back.
Engagement tips for everyone (athletes, fans, industry folks):
Follow this twitter list.
Read some of these articles.
Sign this petition.
Also for elite athletes:
Email your AAC event leader and ask to be added to the Athletes’ Advisory Committee email list to stay up to date, and also email them any questions, or concerns you’d like them to address on your behalf at the annual meeting and beyond. It’s their job as an elected leader.
Any other ideas, please add them to the comments.