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When Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montaño took the podium on Monday during the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar, to retroactively claim medals that had been lost to convicted dopers, it was a small victory for clean sport. But behind the celebratory moment remain years of anguish, lost income, and second-guessing the pursuit of professional running.
Montaño received two bronze medals for her performances in the 800 meters at the 2011 and 2013 world championships—she had placed fourth in both races. Martinez’s bronze medal from the 800-meters in 2013 was upgraded to silver. The reason? Russian Mariya (Savinova) Farnisova was stripped of her silver medals in both races (as well as her gold at the 2012 Olympics) after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
What would Montaño’s career look like if she had the opportunity to compete against clean athletes? By 2013 she would have been third in the world in the 800 meters three times over. And she probably could have had a 2012 Olympic bronze, too, had Farnisova not been competing—along with Russian Ekaterina Poistogova, who despite testing positive for banned substances in 2017 was upgraded to silver for her 2012 race at the Games (though, results may still not be final).
Montaño, 33, is nonetheless one of the most-decorated middle-distance runners the U.S. has ever seen, but because her medals came eight years too late, the soon-to-be mother of three missed out on potential endorsement deals, performance bonuses, appearance fees, and prize money. All told, she estimates up to $1 million lost, though concedes she’ll never really know.
The most valuable thing she can’t get back is, of course, time.
“You’re trying to make the most of the time you have, because your time as an athlete is not forever,” she says. “Medals allow you to network and set yourself up for amazing opportunities that could come your way. When you’re top three in the world, the opportunity to turn more revenue is something that continues to allow you to stay in the sport.”
Farnisova and others were caught thanks to Russian whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova, a convicted drug cheat herself who secretly recorded conversations that uncovered the state-sponsored doping operation in Russia. It also revealed the bribes that leaders at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the global governing body of the sport, took to cover up positive drug tests, allowing known dopers to continue competing.
Although those corrupt officials are now gone and Russia still is not allowed to compete as a team at international track and field competition, it’s of little consolation to the athletes who never got a fair field of play—or the runners who continue to compete against cheats.
“I’m exhausted. I’m living such a happy life right now, but I’m so tired,” says Montaño, who lives in Berkeley, California. “People don’t recognize that you have this profession and this viable dream and then you realize it’s all a complete farce. It’s insane all that’s been taken.”
Montaño and Martinez got the call from U.S.A. Track & Field officials notifying them of the medal reallocation ceremony two weeks before it took place, inviting them to take the trip to Doha to participate. The IAAF offered to pay for one round-trip flight and up to two nights of hotel accommodations for each athlete. Upon her request, USATF kicked in another $3,000 to help Montaño take her two children, husband, and parents.
Martinez decided to go solo (her husband, Carlos Handler, stayed behind to take care of their four dogs and cat), even though she had stood on the podium as a bronze medalist in 2013.
“I wanted to go through that again the right way, I wanted to see the American flag go up and have Alysia by my side,” she says. “Hopefully we get to the point that we believe in strict liability, we give people a lifetime ban and we hold everybody accountable—coaches, agents, and everybody involved. It’s a reminder we still have a long way to go.”
Little did either athlete know that just hours after they received those medals, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would announce that Alberto Salazar, coach of the Oregon Project, has received a four-year ban from the sport for violating doping rules. Salazar says he’s appealing the decision, but halfway through the meet, his credentials at the world championships in Doha were revoked.
Some say it was a good day for clean sport. Others weren’t so sure. All agree that a lot is at stake.
Hawi Keflezighi, an agent who represents notable runners like his brother Meb Keflezighi (2014 Boston Marathon champion) and Aliphine Tuliamuk (nine-time national road champion), says that while you can’t calculate the value of exposure lost for an athlete who is cheated out of a result, you can paint a fairly accurate picture of the financial impact.
“Usually there’s a five-figure performance bonus for a bronze medal, in most sponsorship contracts, and it’s standard in most that it’s a rollover—so you receive [the bonus] when you earn it and then it increases your base pay by the same amount the following year,” he says. “If [Montaño] had gotten those medals in 2011 and 2013—and that bronze at the 2012 Olympics—that’s three years of rollovers.”
If her contract expired during one of those years, she also missed out, Keflezighi says.
“Entering negotiations after winning a medal is a huge opportunity to increase you value,” he says. “It impacts the future base of your contract.”
Martinez said her sponsor, New Balance, retroactively paid her performance bonus after the results were changed. Montaño was under contract with Nike and then Asics, but does not represent either brand anymore.
Athletes who have medaled in one of the two most-recent world championships also receive an additional $14,000 of funding from USATF, which includes a $10,000 stipend, $2,000 for medical, and $2,000 for coaching. And then there’s the IAAF world championships prize money. In 2011 and 2013, Montaño got $15,000 for her fourth-place finishes, but should have received $20,000 for each. Martinez received $20,000 for bronze in 2013 but should have gotten $30,000 for silver.
Kara Goucher placed third at the 2007 world championships 10,000 meters but her medal was upgraded to silver in 2017 after Turkish athlete Elvan Abeylegesse was handed a two-year ban for taking steroids. Jo Pavey of Great Britain was retroactively awarded bronze.
Goucher, who is a former member of the Oregon Project and was one of the whistleblowers in the Salazar case, said that although she and Pavey attended the medal reallocation ceremony in London in 2017, they never received their medals. They were given medallions and told they’d receive medals at a later date. They also haven’t been paid the difference in prize money (which was the same amount in 2007 as it was in 2011 and 2013).
“The ceremony was in a fairly empty stadium because it was before the meet started but I still really appreciated it. I was very emotional—my son and Jo’s son were holding hands and waving the American and the British flags, and then I started crying,” Goucher says. “It’s just that so much had changed in my life.”
A year went by after the retroactive ceremony when Goucher asked the IAAF and USATF about when she would receive her proper medal.
“Once again, I feel like I’m being a bother, but then I remind myself that this is crazy—I earned that and they should want me to have it,” she says. “I appreciate the acknowledgement that we were wronged, but when two years have passed since the ceremony and 12 years since the race and I still don’t have the medal, it doesn’t make me feel like they actually care at all.”
Messages to the IAAF and USATF from Women’s Running seeking more information about medals, prize and bonus money payouts, and the process by which athletes are notified of retroactive results changes were not returned.
“I’m never going to get the prize money back, I’m never going to get the Nike incentive money back, I’m never going to get the extra appearance fee money that I would have gotten out of the [2008 New York City Marathon debut],” Goucher says. “The least they can do is make me a medal and send it to me.”
Keflezighi agrees that a world ranking is significant criteria for an athlete and how she’s perceived when it’s time to switch to road races.
“How you finish in a 10,000-meter race before your marathon debut matters,” he says. “The more you accomplish on the track, the more competition there is for you between race [officials] for your debut. That generates a higher appearance fee—tens of thousands of dollars.”
The financial repercussions are enormous, but it’s the emotional toll and the raw frustration are what most people never see. Martinez, 32, who has specialized in the 800-meters for most of her career, says her confidence has taken a beating because of cheaters. As she pours herself into her training—day after day—sometimes she wonders if it’s worth it.
“I have a really hard time dealing with it—my wellbeing and being happy and telling myself that if I do my best, I’ll be fine,” she says, through tears. “But I’m not fine. There’ve been days when I don’t run. I try not to feel sorry for myself, but it’s so hard.”
Martinez has also suffered physical side effects brought on my emotional distress. She suffers from alopecia, a condition that causes extreme hair loss, brought on by stress.
“For a long time, I dreaded getting in the shower because I knew wads of hair would just fall out,” Martinez says. “I try to be tough and say, ‘I can deal with this,’ but for those of us who are clean, I feel like nobody has our backs.”
The sacrifices that professional athletes make in order to compete at the highest levels are wide-ranging. The missed weddings, birthday parties, milestones, and holidays are numerous. Many women postpone having a family. They want to believe that their careers are worth it. But it’s difficult to keep the faith when it’s obvious that they don’t have a fair shot against cheaters—and that their performances are often not a true reflection of their talent.
“You still need to live your life while time is going by and you’re trying to achieve goals that aren’t actually attainable because the system has basically been set up for you to fail if you’re going to do this with integrity and truth,” Montaño says. “My husband has been through the whole thing with me, my parents, too—the emotional toil, crying on their shoulders has been everything for me to get through this and try and try and try again.”
For Shalane Flanagan, whose 2008 Olympic bronze medal in the 10,000 meters was upgraded to silver in 2017, the heartbreak has sometimes been too much. Overall, however, her four Olympic appearances have been among her least-favorite career memories because she knew in her gut that she had been beaten by dopers. At the 2016 Olympics, for example, she came in sixth—since then, the gold medalist, Jemima Sumgong, and the silver medalist, Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa, have both have been suspended for positive drug tests.
“Even if the race results are never changed, let’s just be honest—their achievements are tainted. I put so much heart and effort into those Olympic performances and I got my heart ripped apart,” Flanagan says. “I love representing my country—it’s the greatest privilege—but I didn’t have much fun. It’s not a safe platform to perform on.”
In 2017, when Flanagan became the first American woman in 40 years to win the New York City Marathon, she immediately thanked the race officials for the due diligence they put into who they invite to compete. She says that New York Road Runners is one of the only major race organizations investigating who potential competitors associate with, including coaches, agents, and training partners, which is often an indication of whether they are clean.
“They don’t have a crystal ball but they are making an effort and they created a stage where I could truly test myself,” Flanagan says. “It’s not easy—I know they get pressure to let athletes in from shoe companies, agents, and coaches. But NYRR is the best at trying to do what’s right.”
More than anything, however, Flanagan has learned that she can’t pursue a career if the sole reason is to win medals. Her motivation has to come from other markers of success and a genuine love of running.
“It’s part of me and it always will be, whether it’s the Olympics or running around the block with my family,” she says. “I get creative about how I view the sport—it’s a way to connect with the community. It’s building a team with the Bowerman Track Club, it’s writing a cookbook. All of it helps me love running in a different way.”
Montaño says she’s not sure what’s next for her running career. She’s currently pregnant with her third child and says when she thinks about competing again, she’d like to avoid doing so wherever the IAAF is involved.
“A relationship with the IAAF is abusive,” she says. “But I do want to continue to compete and I love pushing my boundaries from the physical aspect. There are other avenues, I suppose, but I don’t know yet. I do know that I’m more than track and field and I have much more to offer.”
Away from the track, Montaño continues advocacy not only for clean sport, but also for other athlete rights—most recently lending her experience and voice to maternity rights for pro athlete mothers.
“I want to push more people toward leadership and recognizing how much change they could make, because I’ve found so much empowerment in that,” she says. “When I think of all the ridiculous dirt and darkness behind the sport right now, it’s poisonous…I think there’s a way to create more events, races, and spaces where people can compete on the national level—and maybe one day global—that isn’t under the IAAF. That would be amazing.”
Martinez is moving away from focusing on the 800 meters, she says, but will continue the pursuit. Despite the dark days and real challenges, she remains hopeful.
“I believe in a clean sport,” she says. “We can have a clean sport.”