Thursday, April 13, 2017

Doping in professional triathlon?

I've become a voracious, near-obsessed, consumer of anti-doping news, policy, and history in the past year. Now that my own personal case has publicly concluded, I thought my interest would die or change, but it's become even more consuming to me. I'm interested in positive tests that come out, the athletes & federations involved, but even more so, I'm interested in the story. Why do people dope? What are the patterns within different sports? Why do some sports and nations seem "cleaner" than others? Where does triathlon fall in all of this?

One of my biggest fears with my own case, was that it helped solidify any skeptics beliefs that "even the nice triathletes are doing it". Don't get me wrong, I think that you can be a nice person and dope, however, I don't really think that you can be a good, strong person and dope without years of cultural brainwashing (similar to what we've seen in cycling). At some point, your moral compass has to switch direction, whatever the reason may be. What are the motives? What makes people finally say, "I can justify that this is 'ok' for me?"

My inner dialogue and conflict steers me towards analyzing two professional sports: Athletics (mostly long-distance running as it relates to triathlon) and cycling. Both of these sports are being torn apart by doping at the highest levels. In early April, it was announced that 2016 Rio Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist, Jemima Sumgong, had produced a positive out-of-competition sample for EPO. Reading past the headline story, it is easy to find the deep-rooted problems with doping in Kenyan athletics. A culture has been created where athletes, managers, agents, and doctors may see doping as the norm rather than the exception. For these athletes, winning a title could mean the difference between sending money for food home to Africa, or being sent home yourself. Out-of-competition testing has been historically spotty and shoddy in Kenya, only now being bolstered by the World Marathon Majors targeted testing, looking to protect it's titles, prize purses, and credibility. Last weekend, I watched the Paris marathon be dominated by Kenyans and I was decidedly disenchanted. Because even if the athletes are clean, we just don't believe anymore. And more than that, we feel for the clean athletes who are constantly placing 4th through 10th at these events and feeling like they just don't quite measure up, and silently knowing why.

Cycling... I don't need to explain the history of doping problems here, but recently, I've been avidly 'watching' the British cycling/SKY saga unfold. What I can see is a bunch of smoke screening, avoidance, and lack of accountability and evidence surrounding an issue (doping) that was supposedly solved in cycling years ago. Cycling is supposed to be clean now, right?

Here's my problem and what I'm grappling with on a personal level. Despite the deep-seated doping problems in sports that make up triathlon (running, cycling, and swimming with its own set of issues)...why do I personally believe the the vast majority of the world's top long-distance triathletes are clean? Am I some kind of idiot? Sure, you may think so, but I don't. This is not some kind of psychological omerta game, this is really what I believe. But why?

The way I can best lay it out is to say that when I look at the top performances and records at the Ironman World Championships and 70.3 World Champs, I believe that by and large, they are clean.
I originally had some # guestimates in here, but that's not fair because we don't really know. What I do think, is that Jan & Sebi don't look each other in the eye and think, "he's doping". That's a cultural difference in triathlon.

At the end of the day, the top professionals in long-distance triathlon do not inherently believe that "everyone is doing it". I have no idea what happened in triathlon in the 90's and the days before proper drug testing, including the test for EPO, but I do know professional triathlon now in 2017. And I believe in it now. I intimately know both men and women regularly in the top 10 in Kona and 70.3 World's and they are most certainly not doping. They also do not inherently believe that their competitors are doping. I could be wrong, but I think if you ask the top men and the top women, and the consistent performers, they'd say the same thing. Maybe not that "no one is doping" or maybe not even my estimates of cleanliness, but I bet they'd say that they'd like to believe the sport is mostly clean and that keeps them out there fighting daily. I don't really think anyone in marathon running would say that right now. I'd say that what is saving long-distance triathlon by-and-large is that the top performers truly believe that it is mostly a level playing field. That the competition is "real" and true and they, and only they, know that because they were able to achieve that high level and those accolades completely clean. And we're lucky for that. Ask any clean elite runner right now what they want most and it is probably, "to believe again". 

In professional cycling history, I know that many "nice" guys with seemingly good morals ended up doping. And the demographics of cyclists and triathletes are not very different, so shouldn't we expect the same in triathlon? The difference to me, is that the cyclists truly believed that everyone was doing it. In order to be at the top, you had to do it. And instead of cheating, you were merely leveling the playing field. That, combined with systematic team organizations with doctors and lots of money, I believe, gets different results than we see in professional triathlon, where most athletes are on their own with a very small (if any) support team.

I'm sure there are people reading this that think it's a bunch of bulls&*t and that I am incredibly naive to believe, but my argument is that this very belief is what is keeping the sport, at the top level, somewhat clean. The top athletes think, "If I accomplished that world title clean, these guys can too."

Why am I writing all this? Shouldn't I just shut up now and walk away? I don't know. But I do know that I've always had a passion for sticking up for what I believe in, even when it may not popular or "easy" for me. So, I'll keep doing it as long as I can.

That's it for my thoughts today... Next time, count me in for a "lighter" update on our recent travels, this baby growing inside me, and the sunny side of life in general.

*Disclaimer: this post represents my opinion. An opinion, by definition, is not categorically right or wrong. If you disagree with me, that's ok! Write your own piece about it- and voice your own opinion- you are absolutely entitled, but please respectfully also allow me to voice mine.

*I'm not touching on amateur triathlon here because I just don't know. I also feel like the sickening culture of "everyone is doing it" is starting to infiltrate some of the "middle-aged" age groups. Things like testosterone and HGH are being prescribed by doctors and "justified" by the athletes. More and more athletes do this and then you start to believe that you're the only one who is not doing it, and eventually for some people, that changes them. 


Douglas Kretzmann said...

I too want to believe..
Another symptom that is missing from pro triathlon is there are few if any supremely dominant athletes. Anyone there can have a bad day.
In the old days of the TDF they would talk about the 'jour sans' - the 'day without', that one bad day that could ruin your Tour. Those don't happen anymore. Watching Froome and Sky dominate absolutely with never a 'jour sans' doesn't reassure.

AG tri is another question..

NJ said...

I have often wondered what would make someone who seems upstanding to do something dishonest like doping. I have never seen a grey area with doping and the justification of it is so far beyond me that I truly couldn't never comprehend how someone could ever find a way to make it okay in their own mind. Your perspective on it shed some light on just how this can happen and I think you really hit it on the head in what you said about how when someone thinks they are the only one not doping, it normalizes it in their own mind and takes the wrong out of the wrong-doing.

Also, perhaps your "near-obsession" (as you put it) is a part of your coping process. I really enjoy reading your thoughts about this. Definitely get your thoughts down about this because it could be a great lesson for your kids someday when they are dealing with the normalization of any sort of wrong behavior (very applicable outside of just doping) and it will show them just how strong a woman their mom is. Keep smiling and enjoy the new direction your life is heading.

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but my argument is that this very belief is what is keeping the sport, at the top level, somewhat clean.

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