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

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Effective drug testing is the "taxing the super-rich" of athletics

The sport's powers-that-be (USATF in the United States, the IAAF internationally) claim to want a banned-drug-free sport. That's a hard position to not publicly take.

These governing bodies, at least the latter one, have tacitly admitted that world records currently on the books may be drug-aided. This was the basis for the dead-on-arrival proposal to erase all world records set before 2005.

Everyone, however, likes world records. Meet promoters, athletes, fans and -- critically -- sponsors.

Thus the sport faces a perennial dilemma. With a truly clean sport in place, there is little chance of new records being set, and fan interest may wane. With a continued doping free-for-all or the perception of same, records may fall, but the sport will be perceived as a bleak laughingstock.

As a result, the governing bodies sort of have to try, but not their very hardest, at all. If this assessment is accurate, it is borne out by the reality that this is exactly what appears to be happening. A horde of big-name Kenyans have been busted in recent years, but as yet no Ethiopians, and this is almost certainly not attributable entirely to real differences in PED usage patterns. If athletes aren't being rigorously tested, for whatever reason, than there is no assurance at all that they are running clean.

At any rate, this scheme seems sufficient to generate a solid degree of fan interest. Road records are more often the target now, especially Radcliffe's 2:15:25 marathon record, and these can only occur so often, and not to packed stadiums in their entirety.

People, broadly speaking, want a clean sport, but not the sum of the results of what that would require. This is where I see parallels with the debate on how much to tax the ultra-rich. It's an idea that almost everyone can get behind, because almost everyone really has no problem at all with higher taxes on people who have a lot more than they do or ever will. Many people don't want higher taxes on well-off, but not really wealthy, people because they (however feebly) often envision themselves joining the ranks of those nicely situated not-storybook-wealthy types. Problem is, those very ultra-wealthy have the power to dictate public policy as long as they can continue garnering enough votes. So much is likely to be said in the next two years about far higher taxes for the top 0.1 percenters, but in reality it's probable we'll see a tepid compromise that sets off no rebellions but makes no one very happy.

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