(Anti) Doping

PC: Kevin Morris Photographer

from Strong at 40

 

My name is Adam Nelson and to the best of my knowledge I am the only athlete in history to be awarded an Olympic Gold Medal EIGHT years after the competition concluded. Some may ask “how is this possible?” It’s possible because WADA recognizes the fact that their testing isn’t perfect. Advancements in technology in the future will improve their testing, so WADA created an 8 year statute of limitation during which they can retest old samples. It’s an additional deterrent for would be cheaters. “You may beat us now, but we might close the gap over the next eight years.” And Yuri Belonog serves as a warning to any potential cheaters that WADA is watching now and watching for the next 8 years too.

 

The truth is I’m glad that they finally “caught” Yuri. I’m happy that WADA remained true to their mission. It’s a huge victory for WADA that should serve as a warning to would be cheaters, but it took EIGHT YEARS! So for me it didn’t feel very much like a victory. It was surreal to receive a phone call from the WSJ reporter informing me that I’d won the gold medal. Yes, I wasn’t notified by the IOC or the USOC or even the WADA or USADA. A reporter told me that the IOC awarded me the gold medal while I was driving to the airport. Nine months later I made the same drive to the Atlanta Airport to exchange my silver medal for the gold medal in the Atlanta Airport’s food court. And while I’ve enjoyed having the gold medal, it doesn’t really feel like its mine. It feels like it really belongs to WADA, because ultimately it was their dedication to their mission. I moved on. I’d dealt with my failure the same way I do every time I fall. I dusted my knees off, rubbed some dirt on it, and got back at it a little bit smarter and more hungry. WADA may have rewritten the record books, but it didn’t change what happened.

 

Every couple years something happens that triggers a whole new round of frustration, depression and anger with the system and the athletes and the consumers of sports. It may not be much of a surprise, but it usually has to do with doping allegations and busts. In the last two years I’ve witnessed gross violations of a trust I extended to WADA and USADA and the rest of the system that we Olympic athletes compete under. And what’s crazy to me is that no one seems to care but me or if they do they are pilloried by those that like the status quo. So let me just go on record and say I don’t understand how WADA, USADA, USATF or the whole alphabet soup of Olympic agencies can grant leniency to anyone that cheats without consulting those that are most affected by the cheaters. I don’t understand how athletes can be held to “strict liability” but our federations can’t possibly deny a “reformed” cheater from an active role in the organization. I don’t understand how cheaters in sports are consistently given second and third chances without consideration or input from those they victimized.

 

Doping is not a victimless crime. DOPING IS NOT A VICTIMLESS CRIME. Every athlete that dopes stole something from all clean athletes and the sport itself. Every athlete invests in the Olympic brand with the hope that they will get a significant return on that investment. Your cheating robbed other athletes of the experiences, memories and money that make the Olympic struggle worthwhile. Yet you all ask to be judged by your performances not by your pasts. Grow up and own your poor decisions of the past. They reveal tendencies in your character to take shortcuts and people are wise to it now. Have you heard of the name Bernie Madoff? Bernie Madoff gave a way MILLIONS of dollars to various charities. He genuinely helped a lot of people in need. However, he robbed his friends and associates of billions of dollars over his career. He’s in jail now and, honestly, I don’t see much difference between a billion dollar ponzi schemer, a low life con artist ripping off social security checks, and drug cheaters. You share the same DNA and are capable of lying to everyone without remorse and, then, blame it on everyone else.

 

Tyson and Justin, according to the rules you’ve earned the right to compete again, but you haven’t earned the privilege to own my trust. You may become the next world champion and according to the rules, you’ve earned that right to do so. BUT you can’t change the past. You can’t rewrite history. All you can do is change your path. I will give you EVERY benefit of the doubt until you cross a line. I will fight for your rights as provided by the rules, but once you’ve crossed that line it’s a long difficult road back to the other side to regain trust. Can you blame me for doubting you? Can you blame anyone for looking over their shoulder? Does that bother you that I would suggest you don’t deserve my trust? TRUST me. I sleep well at night except when I wake up pissed about how much PEDs robbed from me. My frustrations and concerns aren’t limited to athletes in track and field. It’s athletes in all sports from Lance Armstrong to Barry Bonds. Every time the athletes in the higher profile sports cheat it makes athletes in all sports less investable, because there’s now a very known and potentially very harmful downside to investing in athletes. Right now, someone is looking at an Olympic athlete and asking “Can I trust this athlete with my brand? Is the risk-reward ratio appropriate? Would I want my children to be like this athlete?” In a litigious society like the US, it’s a wonder that an athlete hasn’t sued another athlete for damages yet.

 

Athletes aren’t heros. That’s a title I reserve for those who truly sacrifice everything for our country. But YOU – Jonny Public – should hold them to the standards you want. Ultimately, you’re the ones that invest the money that create billion dollar opportunities. A lot of athletes may not recognize this, but they are in a service business and their job is to exceed YOUR expectations. If they do that, it translates to ticket sales and merchandising opportunities and television deals and… Athletes are ambassadors and – yes, I’m sorry Charles Barkley – role models or at least should represent the morals and expectations of the public they serve. If their respective consumers want to win at all costs and don’t care if they do so with a bunch of criminals, thats the publics choice. If an athlete screws up bad enough, they don’t deserve the privilege of competing anymore for you.

 

As a shot putter, a lot of people assume I know a lot about PEDs. I’ve read a lot since 2012, but most of the information I have on their benefits comes straight from those I know have done drugs, specifically in the world of bodybuilding and power lifting. I remember having a conversation with a father of a high school shot putter about training at Venice Beach with Arnold and working alongside Joe Weider. This guy was part of the original iron culture in the US. He told me that even 20 years later he believed he had a residual benefit from the drugs (and hard work) he did in his twenties. I realize this is purely anecdotal, but it’s not the only time I’ve heard it. You can’t undo the stresses that build stronger connective tissue and propelled you beyond your genetic potential. In a sense it’s similar to PTSD. You’ve exposed yourself to a trauma well beyond what your body could naturally absorb, so your body HAS to experience long-term side affects from that. Or maybe it’s more akin to “old man” strength. That’s the same strength that led me to believe my dad could still kick my ass well into my twenties. You may not be as good as you once were, but you’re still as good once as you ever were. In track and field that’s all that matters.

 

I’m a principles and rules guy. I like principles to steer me in the right direction. I like rules because they provide a framework of guard rails to keep us safe on our path. I believe in pushing the limits while staying well within the confines and safety of the guard rails. I trusted WADA to do their job in a manner that was worth the headaches of updating whereabouts so I could maintain my “compliant” status. However, it’s difficult to willingly comply with “strict liability” when the repurcussions for not complying seem to be completely subjective and self-serving. How in the world does an athlete that admits to taking testosterone AFTER he tests positive receive a reduced sentence? That reaks of backroom politicking and you have the gumption to do this without any outside input from those you serve. The deal should never be “we’ll reduce your sentence.” The deal should be you’ll have the opportunity to return to the sport after you serve the standard time IF the information you share with us is deemed worthy by a jury of your peers. Shame on you. The thing is WADA and its affiliates have the wrong idea. We’re not here to serve you. You’re here to serve me – the drug-free compliant guy. And, YOU’RE FAILING to uphold your end of the bargain and changing the rules when it suits you. You presume me guilty till proven innocent by each test, but your testing isn’t as good as you market it to be otherwise there’d be no need for 8 years.

 

It’s not all on WADA and the affiliates. It’s also on the NOCs and the Federations. WADA and its affiliates were born out of your inability to enforce your own policies. Instead of putting on your big boy pants, you outsourced the one thing that has come to define integrity in sports. In doing so you’ve channeled millions of additional dollars to support the operational costs of another global non-governmental organization that treats athletes like paroles. And the cynic in me simply doesn’t believe that you made this decision out of pure altruism. At best you recognized that you didn’t have the discipline and integrity to be the judge and jury and executioner. But it’s more likely that you realized this was huge headache that stole time from more productive business, like how to sell a more robust television deal or drive the bidding up for host cities.

 

What bothers me today is that I don’t see anyone really pushing for change and advancement. WADA spends millions building a “better” mouse trap, leveraging new forms of technology to improve whereabouts and compliance, and generally making it incrementally more difficult for athletes to cheat. Yet they still operate behind closed doors. I read something about “HERE” ear buds recently. The company stated we could develop this technology in 8 years behind closed doors or we could do it in the open in months. Why are you so afraid to engage athletes in dialogue? Are we the enemy or your ally? It’s not like you have any real competitors and I have news for you. Those who cheat already know how to crack your “secret” code. But I guess you like the status quo, because if you actually perfected your testing quicker you wouldn’t need all that money. On the other hand, if you perfected your testing you could ensure that no one would ever have to experience what I went through and maybe some of that money invested in you could actually go to promoting and supporting athletes.

 

Athletes: We are governed by a bunch of non-profits with no owners. I know this can be a difficult concept to understand, but without ownership the NOCs, Federations, ADA’s and others are only accountable to themselves. You – the athletes – should consider yourself owners of this sport. Anything that negatively impacts the sport significantly changes your return on YOUR investment. Doping is a plague that hinders the growth of our sport, because you don’t have enough opportunities to offset the negative fallout from one high profile test in a year. It’s a blunt object that beats you back into a more amateur status. And the more amateur we are as a collective the more we lose out in the long run. I believe there’s a better way forward, but it will take a willingness for all parties to engage each other as equals.

 

I’m not writing this to complain. I’m writing this to suggest an alternative. We keep repeating the same formula and expecting a different result. Einstein called that “insanity.” So you tell me: are you insane? or do you really want change? Change starts with dialogue. Change starts with willingness to accept a different pathway forward. Change MUST include the athletes, coaches, federations and NOCs working together to define our future culture. Don’t let self-created barriers prevent you from changing the future.

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