Thursday, May 27, 2010

Why We’re Losing the War Against Drugs

The issue of drug use among athletes is once again front and center in the sports world. Within the past month four drug related matters have arisen that have given the topic fresh legs. First was the revelation that Lashawn Merritt was accepting a provisional suspension due to three positive drug tests for a banned substance in his system. Intermittently has been the news/discussion and potential trial of Canadian physician Anthony Galea and his controversial use of HGH and a “blood spinning” technique in the treatment of several sports related patients. There was the recent death of Charlie Francis - best known as the coach of Ben Johnson, the Seoul 100 meter champion that tested positive for a banned substance at the Games and subsequently was banned from the sport. Then the admission of former Tour de France winner Floyd Landis that he has used performance enhancing drugs and his implication of seven time champion Lance Armstrong as another that has taken performance enhancers.

So it’s really hard to ignore the issue, no matter how controversial, when we are being hit with news regarding such well known sports entities! Listening to the various conversations, sports talk radio shows, Sportscenter interviews and discussions, as well as just talking to people I know, there are many strong and varied reactions to all that has transpired. Among the many positions taken, there are those that say they could care less if athletes use drugs or not. Those that say they believe that most athletes use drugs and they should simply be made legal. And those that say that drugs could be cleaned up if we simply gave lifetime bans to anyone testing positive.

There are other positions out there as well, but these seem to be the most prevalent, and most strongly argued. What I have found interesting however, is that regardless of what side or position that people take, the one thing that everyone seems to be in agreement on is that we are losing the “war” against performance enhancing drug use! A sentiment that I have to agree with.

So, given the premise that we all agree that the war is being lost, the real question is, why? Well, as I look at things we’re fighting so poorly as to present the impression that we’re really not in it to win it! Why do I say this? Because usually when there is a war there is a plan, the goal of which is the systematic elimination of the enemy. This sport has no such plan. More importantly the plan that is in place seems to have the opposite goal – to invite or increase use! Yes, that’s what I said. Let me explain.

First off, I see the sport’s marketing plan to be in direct opposition to the need to get rid of drugs. The marketing strategy of the sport is based on athletes breaking records – individual achievement at the ultimate level in lieu of a focus on competition! The result is that athletes are ENCOURAGED to push the envelope on performance. Want recognition? You have to push the envelope. Mo Greene and Carl Lewis are the two greatest winners the world has seen in the sprint world. Lewis won gold medals in the the sprints and jumps on the big stage from 1983 through 1996. Greene was a medal winning machine – primarily gold – from 1997 through 2004. Yet both have already been relegated to distant memory due to Usain Bolt’s record breaking exploits over a two year period! Michael Johnson was a sports icon – wiped out in 19.30 seconds. Want to be a star in this sport? You must win in record fashion or you’re just another athlete! Doubt me, just ask yourself why Kim Collins’ (10.07) and John Capel’s (20.30) World Championship gold medal wins in 2003 are barely a footnote in the history of the sport – for those that even remember!

The sport’s method of rewarding athletes financially follows the same plan. Want to earn a quick $100,000 in track and field? Break a world record – because world records are rewarded with a $100,000 bonus! Push the envelope, achieve the ultimate and we will reward you thusly. No, we don’t care about how many of your peers you can defeat. Doesn’t even matter if you can win a championship. But if you can set a record you can get paid – big! Ask Asafa Powell who from 2003 (his breakthrough season) until now has yet to win a gold medal in a major global championship – not as much as a silver. Two bronze, and two fifth place finishes in major competition. Yet four world records have been worth $400,000 in bonus money (not counting what he may have gotten from his shoe company), and he’s been able to sit in matchup race negotiations and ask for more money than his gold medal winning counterparts!

So our marketing and rewards systems are geared towards the achievement of that which should be the rare achievement – the ultimate in achievements. But we have told our athletes, and the general public, that we as a sport are looking for our athletes to achieve these with regularity. That’s why and what we want the public to come witness! At least that’s what we advertise. That’s the hype that we build and the carrot that we place in front of our athletes. We will reward you handsomely if you can achieve that which should be the most difficult to achieve. No wonder athletes don’t worry about meeting each other head to head – there’s no incentive in that (just a pet peeve)!

So much for the message that we send the athletes and the public. How about the war itself – surely we are doing better on the front lines? Well, no we’re not. When you fight a war you do so with the strongest ammunition you have, but that’s not how we are fighting this war. This war is being fought using urinalysis as the primary weapon. Which today is the equivalent of using a slingshot instead of a bomb.

The method that should be in place is blood testing and blood passports. A system that was developed a decade ago prior to the Sydney Olympics. Utilizing this type of testing method, not only would we be better able to detect known substances in the system, but we would be able to detect abnormalities which would indicate foreign substances that we have yet to develop a profile for – such as those created by BALCO and Victor Conte. But the sport has moved slowly towards adopting this methodology – while we continue to find after the fact that athlete after athlete has repeatedly beaten the system currently in place! We have been told that this may be in place by London, but that is nearly a decade after BALCO burst on the scene! Doesn’t give the impression that having the state of the art system in place is a priority – something that most generals insist upon when fighting a war!

Now to be fair we have been told many times in the last couple of years that athletes have given urine AND given blood and that it has been tested. However, testing blood WITHOUT having a base profile (the passport) is nearly as worthless as urinalysis. The passport (base profile) is the key that enables the tester to detect “anomalies” that would point to possible “undetectables”. And if we’ve learned anything in the last half decade or so – or maybe the sport hasn’t – it’s that the real threat in this war is that which we AREN’T already aware of!

Which brings me to the final reason why we are losing this war – poor use of intel and prisoners of war! In a real war you want to capture the enemy – because you can use him/her to advance your cause. They can tell you what you are up against. Reveal enemy plans. Let you know where the traps, bombs, and weapons are that the other side plans to use against you. Prisoners of war can provide VALUABLE information that could lead to the end of the war – hopefully with fewer casualties than without the advanced intel.

But this sport treats those “captured” from the other side as garbage that simply must be disposed. We dismiss what they have to say as the “rantings” of a cheat. Because after all there is no way that someone that took advantage of the system would EVER tell the truth. Every word uttered from their mouth from that point forward MUST be a lie and treated as such. Once “busted” or convicted (as in the case of many involved with BALCO) this sport wants nothing more to do with you. We don’t want you to run, jump, throw, coach, teach, or otherwise interact with anyone else associated with this sport. Never mind that you say you want to make amends by telling us exactly how you were able to accomplish what you did. Never mind that you tell us what is out there even when we don’t ask for it, because we don’t want to hear it and don’t plan to use it. Please pack up and leave we have no further use for you. I’m so glad track and field wasn’t in charge of World War II!

So Charlie Francis had to go underground. And while I doubt any of the leadership of track and field ever read “Speed Trap”, I’m certain that throngs of athletes and those who were interested in how he got Ben to the point he did read it – I did. Probably a primer and blueprint for Victor Conte (a rhetorical statement) and others in the business on what works and what doesn’t. Should have been, and should be, a must read for anyone on the front lines of the drug War. Just like the sport should have contracted with Victor Conte to conduct seminars on doping for members of anti doping associations world wide – so they know what they’re up against! And they all should read “Blood Sport” by Robin Parisotto – the guy that developed the blood testing / blood passport protocol. I have a copy if anyone is interested.

My point is that Francis, Conte, Jones, Graham, Gatlin, Chambers, and the myriad of others that have either been caught, or in some cases come clean, have all been prisoners of war at one time or other. Prisoners who have all been branded with the label “cheat” and immediately dismissed as trash, instead of being utilized for their considerable knowledge. Be it direct knowledge of doping. Knowledge of distribution systems. Knowledge of usage and clearing timing. All sorts of information that could be applied to new methodologies of detection! Methodologies that could accelerate the war and put our side in a better position to compete. But the arrogance of this sport leaves us with only one alternative – test and eliminate in those rare instances when we succeed. Not a winning strategy in my opinion.

So that’s my diatribe on why we are losing this war. Because at every level we don’t appear to be fighting to win!


  1. You say we need to listen to our "prisoners", but then you say that we need to rely on blood passports. Did you listen to Landis at all? Blood passports didn't catch him...he found a way around them It's not that they are not effective, but that have their weaknesses like everything else. We cannot rely on any one thing to win this war.

    We also need to ask where to draw the line about the invasive policies athletes are facing. One shouldn't have to give up all their rights to compete in sport. Everyone says that if an athlete has nothing to hide, they should be forthcoming, but many athletes have nothing to hide yet have vaild reasons for not wanting to report where they are every second of the day, constantly having blood drawn, and having their DNA on file somewhere (opening them up to potential genetic discrimination). But, all these questions probably better fall under the category of whether this "war" is worth fighting in the first place.

  2. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Blood Passports are perfect .. I'm saying they are the best thing available so that is what we should be employing ..

    The fact that they aren't perfect is exactly why we need to better utilize our "prisoners of war" .. Because the best way to get a handle on this situation is to try to get out in front of it instead of always being behind ..

    And I do agree that whatever we do we have to take into account athlete's rights .. Personally I feel the athletes need a union because they are always "low man on the totem pole" and constantly being violated and/or simply get the short end of the stick ..

  3. Exactly. A union would be a great addition, but as much as I would like it, I don't know how feasible it would be. Unlike other professional sports, track and field is so disjointed. Basketball players have to negotiate with the NBA and football players with the NFL, but would track athletes have to reach a collectively bargained agreement with all of the individual meets, the USATF, IAAF, and other federations? Some athletes I talk to think a union will magically make things better, but there needs to be a lot of planning done first before it can be effective., I must have woken up on the pessimistic side of the bed.

    (on an aside, I don't think all world records are rewarded with a 100k bonus. I think only records at major meets like WCs, WAF, etc. get the bonus, so in a way it still encourages competition. But, I agree with you that we need to focus more on competition...the focus on records has hurt the field events a lot, especially the throws where the 80s doped marks still reign)

  4. Track and field is too disjointed .. The sport needs a major restructuring .. Having said that I think that a union would have to deal with the federations and IAAF since they are supposed to be somewhat of a collective .. The problem is that all the real power lies with the individual meets themselves who no one other than the promoters has any real control over ..

    However, IF the athletes union were to stand strong and as a body exert their power the meets would have little choice but to negotiate with them .. That would mean that some meets would have to go without any athletes competing at all - no one breaking ranks .. The question in my mind is would the highly paid athletes support the lesser paid athletes ?? Because their is a HUGE divide between the haves and the have nots .. So would the Bolt, Gay, Spearmon, Dix et al boycott and risk a payday to help make things better for Trell Kimmons, Martial Mbandjock and Christophe Lemaitre ?? Because that is what it would take ..

  5. You're right about the power structure. Most of the Diamond League board isn't IAAF people, but meet directors. It will take a strong union stance, and hopefully that the top athletes will do that for the rest of us.

  6. I think that everyone underestimates the importance of the "other" athletes .. Without them there are NO races !! If you can't fill the lanes the top athletes cannot set records - there are requirements for number of events and competitors in order for a meet to be "legal" for record setting purposes ..

    The Globetrotters would be nothing without the Washington Generals, likewise the non top athletes are valuable too .. That's the argument that needs to be presented to the Bolt's and Gay's ..