Recently in the world of track and field and road running, there has been a disheartening amount of news about athletes being caught for doping. What is doping you ask? It’s the fancy-schmancy scientific term for using performance-enhancing drugs to make you a “better runner.” Outside of our sport, in perhaps more mainstream media, tennis phenom Maria Sharapova announced on Monday she failed a drug test for the illegal substance meldonium, which was just put on the banned substance list beginning in January 2016. It’s a drug that was developed for patients dealing with heart failure and issues with blood flow; it was not developed for elite athletes. Elite athletes shouldn’t have heart failure problems, and if they do, they should probably pick another profession. Still, articles are coming out stating that more than 60 elite athletes are testing positive for this drug because it only recently was placed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) prohibited list.
Do you know what meldonium does? It increases blood flow, increases glycogen storage and carries more oxygen to muscles. In other words, it makes you a whole lot “better” as an athlete. I know—I’m throwing out terms like “banned list” and “performance-enhancing,” and I might be losing a few of you. But here’s why I chose to share my thoughts with you regarding the doping scandals occurring in the world of track and field right now.
Cheating is cheating, whether it is using banned substances, taking out your own blood and replacing it with better blood or cheating in school on exams. If you choose to cheat, you are walking down a path tainted with greed, need and the desire to find any means to success. Cheating in my sport has a rippling effect—but is sometimes left out of the mainstream media. The athletes that are caught for doping—or not caught—beat other clean athletes who are putting in the same amount of time, energy and work load. While clean athletes have teams of coaches, doctors, therapists, family and support crew all making sacrifices to help them train and reach their highest potential, the ones who cheat still have an edge. They recover faster, allowing them to put in more high-volume training and high-intensity workouts and train harder without their bodies breaking down.
This all has a cumulative effect. When they go out and win a medal at the Olympics Games, their country’s anthem is played, their sponsor is mentioned all over media, their coach is recognized and their family is ecstatic. This all occurs in a five-minute time span at the medal ceremony. Now imagine four years later, it comes out that that athlete tested positive for a banned substance, and their performance is now null and void. That means the fourth-place finisher maybe gets to move up a spot and earn a medal—but that five-minute moment has already been lost. By default, the medal is earned on paper.
Then WADA and USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) have to determine the “sentence” for this cheating athlete. Should they be banned from competition for two years, maybe four, possibly eight? It’s bullcrap; the correct answer is for a lifetime. You can’t pay back what you’ve stolen. You can’t undo the physical effects of what performance-enhancing drugs allowed you to do as an athlete, and I haven’t even mentioned the monetary part of what athletes who cheat deprive the people they beat of. From a professional runner’s perspective, whose profession it is to run these races, this lost money adds up. Imagine this: at the office, you and a co-worker are working on a project for eight months, both putting in the same amount of time and energy. You turn it into your boss, but your co-worker somehow outperformed your report, so he or she gets paid almost double what you get, then gets a promotion, then gets offers from other companies and moves to a nicer office. You stay put. Two years later it comes out he or she cheated on the report, but you’re still where you are at, and you can’t turn your report back in for review after all of that time and after your co-worker received special treatment. Burns a little, doesn’t it?
So why should the larger world of running care about what happens to the elite world of racing? Because like I mentioned, cheating is cheating. Every part of being an athlete is setting an example. Kids are growing up in world where athletics influence them and mold them into whom or what they want to be—whom they aspire to become. If they want to be a pro football player but don’t know steroids can run rampant in the NFL, they are naive. If they want to be a pro runner but only see that those who succeed at the highest level have, at one time or more, used performance-enhancing drugs, they might believe that’s what you have to do to be the best. That’s what everybody does. We can thank the cycling world for that negative blanket statement of “Everybody is doing it.” Everybody is not doing it, but everybody should be aware of it, talking about it, questioning it and demanding change. Success, power and money, in any facet of life, can influence the best of characters to walk the fine line of morality. I refuse to compete in and love a sport that can’t wipe clean of all cheaters and create a system where bans are for life, thus discouraging people who feel they can cheat and only suffer a slap on the wrist.
I have two sons who will be growing into boys and men one day. I want them to know you can reach your goals with integrity, hard work and supreme belief in yourself. You have to be willing to stand up when no one else will, speak up when it’s quiet and demand change. We don’t always fight the fights we can win; we fight the fights that are worth fighting.