Once again we have had a doping issue arise in the sport of track and field. And I agree with those who say that doping is a major PR problem for the sport. I disagree, however, as to why doping is such a PR nightmare. While most would contend that it is the announcements of the positive tests that is the problem, I believe that the real problem is that positive tests are the ONLY thing we hear about when it comes to doping!
The story that ISN’T told is that, to my knowledge, we test our athletes more than any other sport in the world! We have in competition testing, out of competition testing, random testing, and we’ve even begun a pilot blood testing program here in the US (Project Believe). The only thing that we tell anyone, however, is who we are suspending because of a positive test!
Now from a PR standpoint that would be like an automaker only making public announcements when they have a recall issue! Fortunately for them they provide information on customer loyalty, performance reviews, safety reports and other information on just how good their products are. Unfortunately for track and field, when it comes to drug testing, we only let people know when someone has been caught breaking the rules! When all the public hears is that people are getting busted “cheating” they develop the attitude that the sport is filled with cheats!
Speaking with people familiar with the sport, and reading what writers who cover the sport have to say it would appear that that is the impression that just about everyone is getting – that the sport is filled with cheats. Not the image that track and field WANTS to have – but it is the one that we are presenting. Because that’s the only information that we provide! Even watching the telecast of the Penn Relays – one of the few meets televised here in the US – the announcers just had to do a segment highlighting Lashawn’s positive test. So that anyone watching track and field on TV for the first time is left with the impression that the few reports they’ve read in the news about track and field are true – track people cheat!
That’s why it’s time for track and field to be open and transparent about our anti doping programs. I “hear” that we test a lot – but I have no idea how many tests we conduct. I have no idea who’s been tested or how many times they’ve been clean. I don’t know if the US is tested the most or proportionate to population or to our competition. I have no idea how many tests were conducted last year in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Caribbean. All I know is when a press release comes out telling me “officially” who is being banned! And I say “officially” because secrecy breeds rumor and innuendo – and this sport is full of rumor and innuendo about who’s tested positive and who’s being covered up.
All of the above is why track and field needs to create a website, or sections on existing sites like USADA, WADA, et al, that provides information on the results of our anti doping program – and not just a few random numbers. If we are the most tested sport, then let’s tell people. If our top athletes are being tested regularly, then let’s tell people. If we’re testing our stars as much as we say we are and they are repeatedly coming up clean then THAT is GOOD NEWS! Going back to the auto industry those would all be very good consumer reports!
Withholding that information and only providing info on who tests positive just gives the impression that doping is a NEGATIVE issue in the sport – that our athletes are dirty not clean. When the reality is that if only a small percentage of our tests come up positive, then the rare “dirty” athlete is not that bad at all! It would also get rid of the veil of secrecy that testing has in this sport. The feeling that something is always being “hidden” – because we know from the past that things HAVE been hidden. That the sport only releases the information that it “wants” to release. Sort of how the public feels about government – that there is some hidden agenda and they only tell us what they want us to know and that Roswell, Area 51, and the truth about the assassination of Kennedy is still out there but being kept from us! When an athlete like Merritt can have THREE positive tests and not even know then we really have a problem – because it seems the information is being withheld from EVERYONE including the athletes themselves.
I understand that there are privacy issues. Those issues can easily be overcome by having athletes sign waivers – and I would think that anyone clean would have no problem with such a waiver. We have the ability for test results to be up online within days of the tests being conducted. Since we won’t know who’s been tested until the results are “up” if there are pending positives they can simply be held pending testing of the “B” sample and notification of the appropriate individuals – but those are the only results that should be withheld – with the final results made available following the conclusion of proper notification procedures.
Transparency would also create greater accountability across the board. We would know who is conducting a fair amount of tests and who isn’t. We would know who is being over tested and potentially targeted and who isn’t being tested enough. We could determine if “random” is truly random and if enough out of competition testing is being conducted. We would be able to see where there are holes in the system and shore them up. And we could finally get rid of the whispers and innuendo that run rampant in this sport.
Questions about a region, look it up. Questions about an individual, look him/her up. The testing history of Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Carmelita Jeter, Allyson Felix, Asafa Powell and Shelly Ann Fraser, et al would be there to simply look up, just as the results of their races are. In competition, out of competition, random, when, where, and what. As they said in Dragnet, “just the facts”.
If testing data was as available as competition data all the whispers, speculation, innuendo and rumors would go away. Because you control the conversation by being open with the information. In turn we would also get rid of the notion that track and field is a dirty sport. After all we say that we are conducting an“anti doping” program through WADA and the various local anti doping agencies. So let’s tell everyone how GOOD our anti doping efforts are performing. Anti doping should be a positive PR talking point, not a negative one. We should be highlighting our successes not our failures.