Professional runners have to endure extraordinary hardships, pain and pressure to make it to the Olympics. Meanwhile, professional racing fans have to put up with the question of which athletes really deserve to be there. This summer, before America’s tryouts for the Tokyo Olympics ended, fans were forced to digest the fact that two of the American track and field athletes most likely to win medals were not going to the Games. Not because they had lost to better athletes, but because they had fallen into the trap of the anti-doping system, for better or for worse.
Many would say worse.
One of the cases is quite cut and dried. Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson ingested marijuana after receiving news that her biological mother had passed away. Although feelings in the United States about marijuana have changed considerably, and the idea that THC improves the performance of your particular discipline is spurious at best, the drug is clearly prohibited during the competition. Richardson admitted guilt and accepted his penalty.
The other case is much more complicated. Long-distance runner Shelby Houlihan tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone, a drug that can increase muscle strength and red blood cell counts. She claims that she inadvertently ingested the drug from a Burrito. This may sound absurd, but as testing protocols have become increasingly sensitive, they now reliably measure down to the level of a picogram, which is one trillionth of a gram of meat. has It has been shown to cause the strange failed drug test. Travis Tygart, the executive director of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who did not deal with the Houlihan case, told me that the agency has handled, on average, one of these cases a year, and that most of the athletes left with yours. called a no-fault rape.
Controversies and complications involving banned substances are really just the tip of the iceberg of runway spectator troubles. Professional running is caught in the middle of a real equity crisis. Athletes’ performances are determined by a dizzying array of factors, both legal and illegal, that have little to do with tradition or the purported values of fair competition. The result, for anyone who really wants to enjoy these races, is a brain disorder.
This is not to say that being a sports fan has not always been a complicated undertaking. The ancient Olympians, who were all men, competed naked; any woman caught in the Olympic Festival was punished by being thrown to her death from a cliff. It was reported that 96.4 million viewers tuned in to the 2021 Super Bowl, despite what soccer does to young men’s brains. The closer you look at your favorite sport, the more likely you are to find impediments to pure, unadulterated fandom. And as modern Olympiad competitions continue this week in Tokyo, running fans in particular are grappling with an ever-growing series of conflicts.
For journalists, like me, who love to run, trying to make sense of these conflicts is almost impossible. I have spent much of my career exploring the unsavory corners of professional endurance sports, and everything I have learned has inevitably been more complicated and nuanced than I could have imagined. We have to live with the knowledge, for example, that world champion sprinter Justin Gatlin’s first doping offense was caused by a substance that he had been prescribed since childhood for his attention deficit disorder. But before you get too comfortable with the idea that he is a clean athlete done wrong, remember that five years later, he failed a doping test for testosterone, and claimed that he had been sabotaged by his masseur. (Gatlin was banned from playing sports for four years and continues to claim his innocence.)
The line of dubious claims from athletes caught cheating is long: my twin died in utero, and that’s why I have someone else’s. blood cells In Myself; I kissed (or love made a) someone who used the drugs; somebody spiked my beer on steroids; I drank too much whiskey last night, and it increased my testosterone; there must have been strychnine in my pigeon cake.
Even if we ignore the spectrum of performance enhancing drugs in running, there are equity issues with funding, access to training facilities, and now equipment. Some Nike-sponsored athletes who dominated the podium at the last Olympics wore shoes that were technically illegal because they were not widely available to the public before the race, as stipulated by World Athletics rules. Nike went so far as to apparently color his road running shoes to look like a different model in an effort to hide them from the authorities. It worked. When laboratory tests showed that the shoes give a 4 percent efficiency benefit, on average, the races were over and the athletes who had worn other shoes had no recourse.
This problem has become more complicated since then. While other brands rush to catch up, Nike has built track shoes With similar technology they have already begun to rewrite the record books.
The beauty of a race, whether on a playground or in an Olympic stadium, is that it is paramount, basic, and easy to understand. And the lack of technology that affects it has historically meant that current times can be compared with those of past generations. But now, professional running has reached a point of dissonance so deep that it is overwhelming. When an athlete achieves a new record or wins a gold medal, fans are now plagued with insurmountable questions. Is that person high? Did your shoes make a difference? How many prescription performance-enhancing drugs are they taking that they don’t really need?
It’s the last one I found so insidious during my reporting. When advances in drug testing made illicit substance doping more difficult to conceal in the wake of the Lance Armstrong era, teams began employing doctors to prescribe substances that their athlete patients might not need medically, but certainly they helped with oxygen transport, energy levels, recovery, and weight loss. This vast gray area remains untouched by anti-doping agencies.
Still, and I’m shaking my head as I write this, I can’t turn away. There is something so naturally dramatic about a foot race. The Olympics are an opportunity for athletes in a sport like running, which Americans forget in the years between the Games, to completely change their lives by performing on the largest stage in the world. The years of sacrifice and effort exposed are truly impressive. And the emotion that I feel when witnessing this is trueRegardless of how crazy I get For now, it is enoughsingle enough, to continue enduring the pain of being a fan.
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