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August 9, 2006

Color Me Sadd

OK – let’s bring things to a close. All this talk about drugs is just bumming me out. So I’ll use today’s post for some final thoughts before we shift gears.

The funny thing is, I feel like I’ve written extensively about the subject, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of angles to be considered. Like I said right off the top, the scope of this problem is enormous.

Yesterday I said that the way we look at sports has been changed. In many ways, it strikes right to the heart of our belief system: is it better to have full awareness of the corruption and dishonesty that produces memorable athletic performances, or to remain ignorant and celebrate the accomplishments as if they were legitimate?

Nothing can be taken at face value anymore. With all individual (as opposed to team) sports, any dominant victory or unexpected performance immediately and automatically casts suspicion – justified or not - on the athlete. Instead of appreciating such heroic moments, we’re forced to wonder whether the feats were attained honestly, and whether they will be overturned in the following weeks.

There will never again be another moment of pure admiration regarding an individual athletic accomplishment. Even if a “clean” athlete somehow manages to break a world record, he will be presumed guilty based on the sins of his predecessors.

Consider the case of Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell, who now stands as the sole 100m world record holder after the disqualification of Justin Gatlin. Before Powell had the record, it belonged to Tim Montgomery, who also tested positive. Are we as fans really supposed to believe that a clean sprinter could beat the best times of two world-class sprinters who also used drugs? It’s a notion that stretches the imagination.

Who was the last clean runner to set the 100m world record? Maurice Greene, or someone from the 1990s? Or do we have to go back further, to Carl Lewis or beyond? It’s become a parlor game. Powell may very well be clean, but there’s no way we’ll ever know for sure. Although he has never been implicated in any wrongdoing, he has an inevitable guilt by association with other sprinters that will always cast suspicion.

As spectators, we’ve somehow collectively decided whether or not to trust an athlete based on his nationality, his upbringing, or the image he has cultivated during his time in the spotlight, rather than evidence that appears contrary. Thousands of San Francisco Giants fans will still tell you they think Barry Bonds is an innocent victim of overzealous persecution. If Floyd Landis were French, would so many Americans try to give him the benefit of the doubt?

I'm one of the biggest Lance Armstrong fans you'll ever find, but if you ask me whether or not he used drugs, I'll tell you honestly that I have no idea. I like to think he didn't. It goes back to that belief system: sometimes it’s just easier to believe that our favorite athletes got where they are through honesty, hard-work, and God-given talent – because any alternative scenario is too depressing to consider.

I remember when I was young, watching the Olympics and the Tour de France with a sense of wonder and awe. Perhaps it was childhood naiveté, but when I watched those events, there was always an underlying premise that Olympic dreams were available to anyone with the right ability and the dedication to work towards greatness.

Undoubtedly, my generation will be the last to grow up with this mindset. Because when athletes like Gatlin and Landis test positive, that idealism is replaced with this hard reality: the athletes at the top are all cheating. If you aren’t using something, you’ll just get beat by somebody who does. There’s absolutely no reason for any kid to think he has an honest shot at being the best without doing something illicit along the way.

I suppose that’s the lingering affect the drug stories have on me: they no longer surprise me, they don’t make me angry, and – somewhat surprisingly - they don’t make me less interested in athletics.

They just make me sad for the state of these sports, sorry that there’s no getting around the problems, and disappointed for the kids who’ll never know the way things used to be.


stronger 8/9/06, 3:49 PM  

I agree. They may as all use drugs to level the field- then the best of the drug users is the best. If they are all using then you'd have to as well to remain competitive.

The Olympics have become more of a guessing game as to who is taking drugs rather than the awe of their performance.

I couldn't stand watching women's tennis anymore.

Dante 8/9/06, 4:50 PM  

A wonderful series of posts, definately a lot to think about. I spoke to my wife about drugs in sport, she's doesnt take much interest in sport in general and therefore still finds it hard to believe that many athletes would be doping up. I wish I still thought that way too.

Perhaps our "clean" athletic idols will unfortunately find a place next to Santa and the Easter Bunny, which is sad.

Anonymous,  8/9/06, 6:28 PM  

I just wanted to thank you for adressing my questions so fully, larry. I think you summed up my feelings with that last paragraph...a general feeling of sadness about sports in general. I don't know why I expext more from the world of sports than the rest of life...it is just a reflection of how our society is as a whole...nothing is that pure...no matter how much we wish it to be that way.

- thousand oaks

olga 8/9/06, 6:31 PM  

There was a thread on ultra-serve list about bringing money to ultras. What then was compared to other sports with prize money and drug scandals. Athletes have to be able to get recognized and make living from their talants...how to draw the line? Personally, I have no idea. As long as Games existed, "help" enhancing performance was going hand in hand. In any sport. It's almost easier not to focus on numbers and watch for pure joy of human bodies capable of amazing things.

Ami 8/10/06, 11:00 AM  

I'm sorry, but I must correct you on one point. I am the single biggest Lance Armstrong fan. Ever.

But all your other points are well taken and very well stated.

Thanks for the thought-provoking posts.

Sarah 8/10/06, 11:09 AM  

I've enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject. The drug stories don't surprise me any longer either. And true here too, I still enjoy watching.

Anne 8/10/06, 3:47 PM  

Earlier you touched on something that I think hit the nail on the head with this drug push: It always comes down to money. If we stripped away the big financial payoffs, what incentive is there to supplement God-given talents with those artificially created? Would a more pure competition return? [That is, if it ever existed.] What would become of the multi-billion-dollar labs that not only make these banned substances but screen samples for them? And how to we know which of those are actually legit anyway?

Unfortunately, I don't see that ever happening. Even if you take away big purses, you have endorsement contracts riding on significant wins. And sponsorships, of course. I guess we like to think of our heroes in more "pure" sports like running and cycling as being better than the "dumb jocks" we pay handsomely to throw, catch or hit a ball on the fields or courts. But really, they aren't, are they?

jeff 8/10/06, 8:23 PM  

but then you have someone like paula radcliffe who gives you hope in the sport again. she's over the top about doping in sport. any time her competitors are being tested, she offers herself up for testing, too. she calls out people publicly she knows are using. she goes through testing all year round to make it clear that she's clean.

but you're right...if paula popped positive, i'd be beyond crushed.

i'm holding onto that thread...i just hope the sweater doesn't come unraveled.

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