Relying solely on the science of what makes us run faster creates an inexorable drift toward chemically aided performance – an increasingly depressing trend that is threatening the credibility of top-level competition and harming the image of almost every professional sport.” – Julian Goater
Alberto Salazar has been pushing the envelope of the sport of running my entire career. Not only is he on any shortlist of legendary American marathon runners, he is also one of the world’s best-known coaches of distance runners today. However, it seems Alberto pushed so hard that he crossed the line into impermissible pharmacology. The United States Anti-Doping Agency rocked the running world on October 1st when they announced that Salazar was suspended for four years for violating the rules against doping. Apparently he gave athletes substances that were not medically necessary, like thyroid and asthma medication, to enhance their performance and infused improper amounts of testosterone cream and a substance called L-carnitine, which converts fat into energy. The arbitration panel that imposed the ban acknowledged that “in some instances, Alberto’s desire clouded his judgment causing him to make unintentional mistakes that violated the rules.”
Some might say that four years is a steep price to pay, but I feel worse for people on both sides of the divide inside the Nike Oregon Project (NOP). Athletes who acted as whistleblowers were really frustrated, waiting years for the truth to come out. And then there are those who justified it all hoping there was some kind an ethical “gray area,” and who may have been manipulated strongly into questionable decisions.
Covert use of performance-enhancing substances — aka “cheating” — is as old as organized sports. Even the Ancient Greeks are said to have taken “potions” to enhance their athletic prowess. Today, with one drug-cheating revelation after another splashed across the headlines, many people are so fed up they now regard all exceptional performances with skepticism and disbelief. The barring of the entire Russian track and field team from competing in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, and the saga of cyclist Lance Armstrong – which ended in his being stripped of an Olympic bronze medal along with his seven Tour de France titles – have become glaring examples of the dishonesty, greed and manipulation in sports that are so abhorrent to our sense of good sportsmanship.
Humanizing Sport’s Doping Culture
It’s a mistake to blame athletes alone for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The pressure to win at all costs in professional sports is unimaginably intense; it is applied by coaches, governments, the media, scientists, sponsors, sports federations, spectators, and even teammates. In his book, Spitting in the Soup, sports journalist Mark Johnson explores the dark money and covert national interests that keep drugs in sports. Johnson unwinds the doping culture from the early days and uncovers the complex relationships that underlie elite sports culture―the essence of which is not to play fair, but to push the boundaries of human performance.
Personally, I have nothing against pushing the boundaries of human performance; in fact, I’m a fan of that perspective. However, as in most things, we miss the mark when we take it too far. Even if we put aside the notion of good sportsmanship, there are huge risks associated with taking performance-enhancing substances. Professional athletes who do so risk bodily breakdown, neuromuscular and hormonal imbalance, severe organ stress, and joint dysfunction. Even everyday athletes and students are headed down that slippery slope, as suggested by the disturbingly high sales of HGH (human growth hormone).
It’s painful to consider that those who make a practice of using banned substances may not only be haunted down the road by the shadow of controversy, but also by a host of debilitating physical ailments.
It’s equally distressing to consider the steep emotional and financial cost that clean athletes pay when they’re cheated out of a medal by those with artificial chemical advantages. Their grievances would be better settled by our country’s judicial system than by the typical governing bodies of athletics, which have never proven up to the task.