American Medals; Sport-wide Doping

from Aspirations of a BA Steeplechaser

I didn’t watch much of the Olympics.  A big part of my inattention was I was sulking as a result of my poor Olympic Trials performance.  At the same time, I am having a really hard time watching track and field when doping is widespread and our governing bodies seem more interested in big stars and world records than holding cheaters accountable.  For example, the International Olympic Committee was given information about state sponsored doping in Russia in 2013.  The IOC decided to ignore that information, let a super corrupt Olympic Games occur in Sochi in 2014, and only dealt with that information in the past few months when it was forced by wider media attention.  Even when a training group is caught red-handed with banned substances, it’s athletes and coaches don’t seem to held accountable.

Even with my disillusionment, it was great seeing Americans kick so much butt in the distance events during these Olympics.  We had seven athletes medal in events ranging from the 800 to the marathon.  And it wasn’t just these superstars.  Many American made the finals and placed well.  This is usually unthinkable with Kenyans and Ethiopians historically winning most, if not all, the distance event medals.  So why where Americans able to place so well this year?  Is it because our training getting better?  Or do we just have an incredible group of athletes?  Or are we better at cheating?

Runners World argues that Americans did so well because of our environment .  According to Erin Strout, we won medals because as a group, USA track and field has: 1) figured out how to use altitude training; 2) changed the timing of our USA championships; and 3) better planning for logistical challenges.  This analysis is much too simplistic.

Yes, we have some logistics figured out, but I think a lot of credit goes to specific coaches (Schumacher and Wetmore, for example), an incredibly talented group of American athletes, and, in some cases, better doping methods.

On the other hand, I think almost all of our USA podium runners are clean, so I can truly celebrate their accomplishments.  Their success is even more incredible when they are certainly competing against some dirty runners.  Further, I think some of our clean runners will move up in placing when cheaters are discovered in the future (Molly Huddle and Jenny Simpson come to mind as athletes who will likely benefit from future doping discoveries).  I am grateful the three women in the steeplechase all seem to be extremely talented, clean athletes.  Nothing would be harder than watching an event when there is good evidence to think the athlete that beat you out is cheating.

Unfortunately, I think we did have quite a few distance athletes representing the United States who are cheating.  No, they may not have been caught, but Lance Armstrong’s cheating went undetected for years, even with frequent testing. And cheating has become even more difficult to detect as technology evolves.  Kenyan’s track manager asked for only for 12 hours notice for his athletes before testing, when he thought he had the opportunity to bribe a testing official at the Olympic games.

I am grateful to the many athletes who put their careers at risk to call out cheating, especially the Stepanovas, who had to flee Russia after exposing the state-wide doping.   The path to a doping-free sport is unclear to me, but athletes and coaches and a vital first step to put pressure on our governing bodies to enforce clean sport to the extent possible.

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