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Wanted - A Level Playing Field - 2003-11-17

It seems to me that this latest, and potentially most devastating, scandal affecting the world of international track and field once again hilights the on going inequities in this once glorious sport.

Let’s cut to the chase. These new so-called designer steroids are very expensive indeed. And which athletes do you think can best afford to enhance their performances through the use of such drugs? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count! For the record, I can tell you that the vast majority of the drug cheats don’t come from Africa or other so-called third world areas.

I used to think that track and field was the last remaining bastion of pure athletic endeavor. Now given all these scandals I’m not so sure any more. And that’s a shame -- a real shame, not so much for this cynical old emperor, but for the thousands upon thousands of innocent young men and women around the world still dreaming of legitimate fame, and, if it comes, fortune.

You see these athletic wannabes when visiting Africa. They are the ones off running through the fields, high up on mountain ridges and around the streets of towns and cities. Sometimes they’re barefooted but always they’re out there attacking their dreams with seemingly tireless tenacity. For them, the biggest reward is the possibility of some day being able to represent their country on a world stage, be it the Olympics, the World Track and Field Championships or some lesser venue.

But the dirty little secret, now being increasingly exposed, is that given the growing sophistication of cheating in the sport there’s less and less chance of these youngsters being able to win on merit and hard work alone. Pure and simple, the playing field is no longer level. It’s been tilted, possibly beyond repair, in favor of the con men, the unscrupulous agents, the sports medicine charlatans and those cheating athletes, all of whom will stop at nothing in their nefarious quest for fame and glory.

I’d be less than sanguine if I tried to fool myself into thinking that drug cheating was a new phenomenon. Way back at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the games’ top drug tester told me gloomily that his tests were invariably one step behind the new improved drug cocktails being concocted to give certain athletes a decided advantage.

Four years later in Seoul, South Korea, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was busted after testing positive for use of a banned male hormone. He was subsequently stripped of his gold medal in the men’s one hundred meters and the news made headlines around the world, as well it might.

But of equal interest were the persistent rumors swirling around Seoul’s Olympic village that a certain American athlete had also tested positive. We waited for the other shoe to fall but it never did. And if I named this suspected drug cheat I know you’d instantly recognize it. That’s how internationally known this athlete was.

I’ll always remember the conversation I had with American female sprint legend, Evelyn Ashford. While stopping short of naming those she strongly suspected of being drug cheats, she did give me one excellent piece of advise: examine the year to year times of the top athletes.

These times, Evelyn said, should go down very very slowly -- the product of long periods of relentless training. Any sudden drops, she said, were totally abnormal and should be viewed with extreme suspicion. "Cause," as she said, "it just doesn’t naturally happen that way!"

Sure enough when I checked out the times of the athlete strongly rumored to have tested positive in Seoul, Evelyn’s suspicions were borne out. Not surprisingly, the times had dropped abnormally fast. Coincidence? I doubt it but then again I’m just a cynical old man!

I wish I could offer hope that a true solution is finally at hand with the unmasking of the so-call designer steroid, THG. The troubling aspect of the revelation is the fact that it probably would have remained a closely guarded secret had it not been for an anonymous coach sending the United States Anti-Doping Agency a syringe that once contained THG. And, even then, it took a team of eight scientists to unlock the steroid’s chemical code.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many within the United States Olympic Committee, USA Track and Field and the International Amateur Athletic Federation who are genuinely serious in their determination to wipe out the use of such illegal drugs. And I laud these efforts. But I also know that, at this very moment, there are those cheats and felons hard at work scheming to perfect new, and potentially deadly, ways of fooling the testers.

I can only hope that the current investigation into the apparent wide spread use of this designer steroid will result in the naming of names and the harshest possible penalties for all those found guilty. And I don’t mean merely the athletes!

But even if this does occur, do I really think this will have a permanent chilling effect on the burgeoning industry of illegal performance enhancing drugs? Not a chance. For as long as top athletes continue to be paid vast amounts of money, the temptation and determination to, literally, cash in on this financial bonanza, fair or foul, will always be there. So far, I’m happy to report that African athletes have been found to be remarkably clean when it comes to the use of such drugs. Oh, there’ve been one or two instances down through the years but for whatever reason the problem has remained minuscule.

We can only hope that it stays this way because, rather ironically, it could be argued that these splendid, idealistic young dreamers from the continent are the ones currently upholding the purest tradition of international track and field, even if they’re not raking in the big bucks!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could return to those days when victory was achieved solely on the athlete’s abilities and hard work and nothing else? Now it’s time for athletes from the so-called track super powers to follow that example.

Will it happen? I doubt it ‘cause I increasingly think many western athletes are unwilling to pay the ultimate price of hard work and true sacrifice to be the very best. A sad commentary but one, unfortunately, I believe to be increasingly true.