Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Track and Field’s Double Jeopardy

No, I’m not talking about a category in the second round of the TV game show Jeopardy. I’m referring to the real life law (at least in this country) that you can’t be tried and convicted of the same crime twice. Once convicted and sentence served you are done with that particular crime. Once you’ve “done the time” you’re done with that crime. At least in the real world. In the world of track and field, such is not the case.

With the Diamond League scheduled to begin this coming weekend I feel this topic must be put on the table. Because before the season is over the sport will once again be garnering headlines due to poor management of a drug matter. Here’s why.

The sprints have always been a headline grabber within the sport. Often the star of the sprints has been either THE face of the sport, or one of the faces of the sport. Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Maurice Greene, and now Usain Bolt have all claimed that mantle. Prior to Bolt that title seemed to be shifting to Justin Gatlin until his fall from grace.

A failed drug test in Kansas sent Gatlin on his way to a four year “time out” from the sport. No more face of the sport. No more earning paydays by running down the track. No more competing at all. Four years of waiting, pondering his past and looking forward to some semblance of redemption. Now, four years later, Gatlin is set to return to the sport in July. He may find himself with few opportunities to redeem himself however, as the sport’s top meet promoters have already gone on record saying that they plan to blackball him – the sport’s version of vigilante justice.

I know that’s somewhat of a harsh way to put it, but let’s call blackballing what it is. Webster’s Dictionary defines blackballing as: 2 a : to exclude socially : ostracize b : boycott. Which basically means you have nothing to do with the individual(s) being “blackballed”. And that is what meet promoters have done, and plan to do to athletes that have served drug suspensions. They are going to deny them access to the best meets. If you’ve served a ban you don’t get to compete in their meets. That’s what they said to Marion Jones BEFORE she was ever convicted or banned from the sport. It’s what they have said to Dwain Chambers in certain instances and it’s what they have said they are going to do to Justin Gatlin – and that IS double jeopardy.

Gatlin will be the highest profile athlete to return from a ban and attempt to compete since Ben Johnson back in the 90’s – the original poster boy for banned athletes. Ironically Ben was allowed to compete after his ban was over – and I don’t remember it hurting the sport at all! It damaged HIS reputation, because he was never able to get anywhere near his previous form which made it clear to most that it was indeed the drugs fueling Ben’s fantastic times and not his own natural ability. Which, frankly, may have been a GOOD thing for the sport.

But, to continue the discussion of irony, it’s only been recently that meet promoters have looked to “blackball” previously banned athletes. Ben Plucknett, Grit Breuer, Dieter Baumann, and Butch Reynolds et al,  all did their time and came back and competed with varying degrees of success. Even athletes with questionable test results, and questionable excuses for those results, such as Merlene Ottey, Linford Christie, and Dennis Mitchell, were allowed to compete without retribution. So why the sudden need to blackball?

It would be different if there were no rules governing the sport and meet promoters were looking for a way to protect themselves, their meets, and their interests. But the sport does have an anti drug policy. One that provides a rather lengthy ban to those athletes that have been caught with contraband in their systems. Two years, four years, and life time bans are the standard depending upon level of substance and previous offenses. That means NO competition – none. The athlete is barred from competing in the sport and essentially is supposed to “dry out” and return clean before being allowed to compete! So, if that is the case, the athlete returns clean, what’s the point of blackballing? Why the need to penalize them a second time for the same offense – double jeopardy?

I see two different and disturbing issues here.

The first is that It seems that perhaps there is a lack of confidence among meet promoters with respect to just how well the anti doping efforts are working! After all, if they had confidence in the system, there would be little doubt that athletes returning from bans would now be fit to take the track and abide by the rules. One would think that after two to four years in “time out” an athlete would have learned his/her lesson, AND that the sport would have had ample time to ensure that he/she is now abiding by the rules and is “clean”. Seeing the need to take matters into their own hands gives the indication that perhaps “blackballing” is in effect a vote of “no confidence” to those in charge of the sport’s anti doping programs.

That they feel that either the anti doping efforts that seem to allow many to fall between the cracks are not sufficient in their estimation to ensure cleanliness of the athlete deemed to have gotten away with it before. Or perhaps they feel that the system designed to monitor the athletes during their “time out” is not sufficient to ensure that they have indeed mended their ways and have come back clean. I put this out there because it seems the need to extend athlete’s bans from competition coincided quite neatly with the BALCO investigation and subsequent discovery that there are indeed substances out there that are undetectable by the conventional method of urinalysis that is the standard of the sport. So, given that knowledge, logic says that perhaps our meet promoters are not completely sold on the process currently in place to both detect and monitor the athlete’s doping activities. To be honest, I’m not sold on our anti doping programs either. So, if that be the case, can’t say that I blame them. Though there are other ways to see that the system gets fixed rather than take it out on the athletes.

The other issue that it raises, however is this: just who is running the sport? Ostensibly it is supposed to be the IAAF in conjunction with national federations. It is the IAAF that, since 1912, has served as the governing body for the sport of track and field (athletics) and creates the rules that the sport abides by – at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. With meet promoters seemingly able to create their own set of rules by which they will conduct their meets, it would seem that the rules enforced by the IAAF apply only to the athletes.

I mean, can you see the owners (the equivalent of meet promoters in this sport) of major league baseball teams, or NBA or NFL teams blackballing any of it’s athletes returning from a ban issued by the league without retribution from their league office? The discussion would immediately move to potential fines, suspensions and perhaps a vote to force a sale/change in ownership. And that’s just from the league office. The Players Union in either sport would have a field day with such a move – can you say “litigation” or “player’s strike”? You see, once the head of the MLB, NBA or NFL makes a decision that decision is followed by everyone associated with the sport. Period, end of discussion.

But in track and field, the IAAF apparently isn’t the final word. Each meet, given the scenario before us, can make it’s own determination as to what it will do. You can run in our meet or maybe not – we’ll let you know! Then of course there are the federations themselves. Because while the IAAF says that Dwain Chambers is eligible to compete in the Olympic Games, the British federation has imposed it’s own double jeopardy on Mr. Chambers by saying that he can’t compete in the Olympics. Though ironically they let him compete at Worlds – go figure.

So, what do I take from all this? Well, Mr. Gatlin is going to have a long row to hoe, as my grandparents used to say, in his comeback bid. Because while the sport calls itself professional, it still functions in some sort of quazi professional, amateur idealism, clearly divided, sort of operation in which the only people that don’t seem to have any power at all is the product that everyone is making money off of – the athletes! They are subject to “double jeopardy” in a world where even hard time criminals only get punished once.

And with no real power aside from being able to tell the athletes what they can and can’t do, it raises the question for me of: when is this sport going to organize itself in a more professional manner? Quite frankly right now it’s a series of meets where, aside from the development of a “co-op” such as the Diamond League, it’s every man/meet/federation for himself. I mean a federation, such as that in Nigeria, would never be allowed to languish so badly if it were a member of the NFL or NBA. The commissioner would have stepped in long ago to “right that ship” as it would be a drag on the overall league!

Yes, the sport holds “championships” that the IAAF is responsible for, and national championships that the federations are responsible for, but there is no centralized organization that is able to bring everyone together under a single umbrella for the betterment of the sport as a whole. There is no commissioner overseeing all operations. There is no grievance procedure for athletes. No salary structure for the athletes or revenue sharing that would assist the smaller federations. There is no global marketing effort designed to raise awareness of the sport.

There is no voice of the sport. But rather at this point many voices crying out in the dark. Which, when we discuss the state of the sport and why it lags behind other “professional” sports must be at the core of that conversation. A conversation that I want to take a look at during the course of the season.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Conway!
    You've really stepped in it (as my Dad used to say). But its a great discussion and I'm glad you put it on the table.
    First, I think the drug policy in general is all messed up. Too much over-reaction to T&F's legitimate doping problems. I used to consume honey and a whole orange before competition - probably more of a boost than that provided by many of the substances now banned.
    The blackballing is a pseudo-whitewashing gesture that the public in general is not buying. We would rather see if an athlete CAN redeem him(her)self.
    Not surprising that the IAAF is losing credibility. Look at the top. Diack is a politician, not an administrator. Get an athlete in there who at least has that perspective in his portfolio.
    Fantastic piece.