It seems that every year there are one or two performances, such as Brussels’ 200 meters, that leave everyone saying, “What was that?” Followed by a mass discussion of the sport’s tainted history in the area of drug use including “border wars” between American & Jamaican fans on message boards; articles in newspapers such as the one recently written by the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh; then counter articles asserting that Hersh is wrong in questioning the performance; and generally lots of whispered accusations and innuendo regarding what is or is not going on within this sport.
The problem is that both sides are correct in their own right. Those that question “exceptional” performances have reason to do so, because everything that Mr. Hersh stated in his article is correct. His “evidence” however is “circumstantial” – as are most of the arguments that are given with respect to these types of performances. On the opposing side, those that are angry when their athletes draw scrutiny are also right in their arguments, but just as with their opposition their “evidence” is also “circumstantial”. More importantly, however, their “trust” in the performances is based on “faith” – the faith that they trust “their” athletes to do the right thing. Trust and faith that they lack in other athletes, and in the system that is supposed to provide the security that EVERYONE is indeed clean.
You see the REAL problem is twofold. Part A is that the sport is suspect in the application of its anti-doping program; Part B is that the sport does not provide enough information to the public to secure confidence in its programs and thus in the performances of its athletes! A & B combined result in the questions that always arise when athletes accomplish something extraordinary.
Part A exists because there have been far too many high profile instances where the public has been “fooled” by the sport. Ben Johnson and the Dubin Inquiry back in the late ‘80’s, early 90’s; BALCO in the early 2000’s; the revelation from former U.S. officials that Carl Lewis and others may have had positive tests covered up in the late 80’s; all have had the cumulative effect on the general populace, as well as athletes themselves who’ve expressed as much in this age of social media, of taking away any confidence that once existed in this sport’s drug testing policies and procedures.
Now, I’m not a fan of the system that is in place. Nor am I happy with the way the sport is going about its attempt to change it – but that’s for a different discussion, one that I will have in the very near future. Whatever system is in place however, needs to have buy in from all concerned – athletes, coaches, media and fans – because perception is reality to the masses whether it is reality or not. And currently the perception of track and field is that tremendous performances are the result of outside forces as much as they are from good old fashioned hard work – because too many athletes that have had great performances have been found to have supplemented that hard work with something else!
So how does the IAAF (the lead agency of track and field) hope to change that perception? Like any other organization or individual does, by showing that it has nothing to hide. By saying “Here is what we do, what has been done, here are the outcomes, and as you can see everything is working as it is supposed to.” – In other words by being transparent with the public regarding its anti-doping program. As I said in April of 2010, and alluded to above, the rash of high profile failures of the program has lead to distrust. And the sport’s “veil of secrecy” regarding testing doesn’t help. Nor has its insistence on allowing the program to be circumvented. In this age of the Internet, we all know when a country doesn’t have an anti-doping agency in place – and is simply allowed to go without rather than take part in a regional agency. We know when a federation questions the right of anti-doping personnel to come into their country. We know when athletes go out of their way to avoid “testers” that are looking for them. We also know that the only information that the IAAF provides to the public about the program is the listing of those that are banned. Personally I think one of the biggest PR blunders of this sport is the level of secrecy that envelopes the anti-doping process.
When you are a sport that a) is supposed to be the centerpiece of what is the world’s premier competition (The Olympic Games) and b) you tout yourself as the bastion of cleanliness when compared to other sports (such as MLB, NFL, et al) then you must appear to have all your cards on the table. You don’t do that by responding to questions about a country’s “cleanliness” by saying that you personally (IAAF officials) are going to that country to take samples (WADA’s job, not yours). Then exacerbate it by telling us that samples have been taken in a country, and by an anti-doping agency, that does not have a lab ratified to test them. That’s an insult to the public’s intelligence and raises more questions than it provides answers.
If you can say, however, “go to www.availableinfo where responses to all of your basic questions about our anti-doping program can be found”, the matter becomes immediately defused. In an age where I can go online and find out the results of my kid’s math test before he gets home from school; where the day’s results of the entire Olympic Games can be transmitted around the world AS they happen; where the answers to almost any question one can imagine are just a few “clicks” away; it would seem that providing a reasonable level of information regarding the sport’s anti-doping program could be done by enlisting the aid of a high school computer science intern who would probably be happy to set up the system for little more than advanced credit.
For the IAAF to allow the questioning of its performances, and the athletes that are the face of the sport, to continue when it has within its ability to quell the argument seems rather irresponsible to me. Especially given that our biggest failing seems to be in the area of marketing and our biggest obstacle the negativity of doping. More so, when your marketing plan seems to hinge on the development of athletes that you WANT to perform at levels approaching the ceiling of human performance, it would seem that you would do everything in your power to ensure that those same performances do not draw NEGATIVE publicity, otherwise you are at odds with yourself – which is where I find the sport of track and field with respect to its best performances, at odds with itself.
So, on my list of things I sorely would like to see the IAAF fix, providing transparency for its anti-doping program sits at #1 on the list – right above fixing the anti-doping program itself, and fixing the broken false start policy.