Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Friday, March 9, 2018

Blaming clean athletes for the doping of others?

If nothing else, Toni Reavis' idea is a new one: Tracksters need to essentially divorce themselves of their own governing body if they expect to be part of a clean sport.

Reavis attempts to draw an analogy between a group of soldiers undergoing basic training in a particular time and space and the entire worldwide community of top-level track and field athletes. If one soiled private fails to take a shower, the story goes, then his mates will physically force him to do so to maintain the integrity and smooth functioning of the unit. And so it should be, Reavis says, with athletes who dope: Their peers should somehow force them to clean themselves up for the benefit of the sport as a whole.

I've seen, and made, some sketchy analogies in the past, but this one is dismal for two extremely obvious reasons.

For one thing, world-class runners don't all train together. They are scattered all over the globe. I'm embarrassed to even be typing this as if I believe that no one is aware of the fact. The implications of this are that if I were a top runner and wanted to eradicate doping at a training camp in Catalan, I would have a hard time taking meaningful action even if I knew about the doping.

But it's worse than that, because the analogy seems to carry the assumption that clean athletes are always, or at least routinely, aware of the using of doped athletes, and that they can do something substantive about it. All of this is demonstrably false. Ask Kara Goucher how her insider efforts to expose a dirty training group a couple years ago have worked so far. Ask other whistleblower types -- not only in running but in cycling, baseball and elsewhere -- whether the battering their personal lives have taken have scaled with the results of their coming forward. The reason such people are scarce is glaringly evident.

For another thing, I am not entirely sure what sort of action the athletes should take when they are not the ones making any important decisions. Reavis even admits that the IAAF has historically not only ignored doping but abetted it. He seems to be laboring under the delusion that "Lord" Sebastian Coe is somehow better than his predecessors in this regard even as he references allegations of shady conduct that Coe is currently embroiled in. (Then again, it could be fairly said that Reavis, who has been around since the glory running days of runners like Coe and Alberto Salazar, has already shown more than faint traces of being biased by hero worship.)

When Reavis says, "Only when enough athletes stand as one, will the sport will begin to scrub itself clean," he is, in effect, claiming that women and minorities need to band together and be more vigilant about gender and racial discrimination. Women and minorities don't run the judicial and law-enforcement systems. Athletes can't take over the Olympics or World Championships, nor can they erect a crime family on the same scale as the IOC and IAAF and establish alternative competitions.

If clean runners had the power to eject the dirty ones from the sport, then they would simply do it. And if the IAAF were serious about expelling dopers from the sport, the entire track and field landscape would be completely different. Its unclear and malleable policy toward Russian dopers should be evidence enough of this, but of course it goes far deeper.

Not inconsequentially, I also think Toni is completely deluded about how many runners are actually competing clean in the first place. If it were as rare as a single unshowered private in a basic-training platoon, the clean ones would be working more energetically to oust the dirty ones. But when half the unit's not taking showers, well...

Reavis cares a great deal about the sport of running, so his tenuous ideas here are understandable; when one is confronted with a vexing problem that can't be easily eliminated, another option is to simply pretend it's a limited problem or wish it into near-nonexistence. But anyone who wants to remain a fan of top-level running needs to be accommodating of the fact that many of his or her heroes are not PED-free. People didn't learn this lesson with Lance Armstrong, who in the media went from "courageous cancer survivor and Livestrong founder" to "brash Texan and bad former husband" overnight when his doping finally became undeniable fact.

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