BALCO. The biggest doping scandal in sports history. From Barry Bonds to Marion Jones, some of the biggest names in sport came tumbling down. Victor Conte became a household name. Everyone became familiar with the phrase "performance enhancing drugs".Baseball’s greatest era of home run hitters was labeled "The Drug Era" and American athletes – specifically sprinters – drew the stigma of dopers!
Not a pretty sight! Doping issues in the sport were grabbing headlines weekly. And it seemed like the only news the sport could get was bad news. Every American sprinter that ran under 10.00, 20.00, 11.00, or 22.00 became suspect, and the bashing of US sprinters became a popular Internet pastime among non Americans.
The sport, IAAF, WADA, USADA, USATF and others have had a decade now to get its house in order and ducks in a row. So where do we stand as we get ready to close out 2013? Have we improved our testing procedures? No. A decade later urinalysis is still the method of choice, though the authorities claim to be using blood testing and moving towards blood passports in selective situations. Of course we know that urinalysis is easily beatable – everyone involved in BALCO beat the system through the use of "designer drugs" – and the chemists have had time to perfect their craft. Take note that the best of the BALCO era "chemists", was former guitar player Victor Conte. One can only imagine the success that someone with an actual Chemistry degree could accomplish!
Then again with the negative attention that BALCO brought to track and field; the flood of suspensions, including the lifetime ban of coach Trevor Graham; the spotlight and pressure put upon USATF, and particularly American sprinters; and the dropping attendance numbers the sport has suffered post BALCO, perhaps radical changes in the sports doping program were/are not needed. Perhaps the BALCO purge was sufficient to scare the sport straight? Perhaps a decade of abhorrent fear of being accidentally caught has been enough to improve the sport’s image.
So what were the highlight headlines of 2013?
* Jamaican Veronica Campbell Brown suspended after a positive test
* Jamaican Sherone Simpson suspended after a positive test
* Jamaican Asafa Powell suspended after a positive test
* American Tyson Gay suspended after a positive test
* Nine Turkish athletes suspended after positive tests
* Twenty two Russian athletes suspended after positive tests
* The Jamaican Anti Doping Agencies (JADCO) deficiencies in testing brought to light by Sports Illustrated http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/news/20130819/lax-drug-testing-in-jamaican-track-and-field/
This follows the previous suspensions of Jamaican athletes Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce, Yohan Blake, Sherry Ann Brooks, Marvin Anderson, Allodin Fothergill, and Lansford Spence all of whom received slaps on the wrist by JADCO.
Negative headlines aside, how have performances fared post BALCO?
* The American Record in the 100 has fallen from a pre BALCO 9.79 to 9.69
* The World Record in the 100 has fallen from a pre BALCO 9.79 to 9.58
* The World Record in the 200 had fallen from a pre BALCO 19.32 to 19.19
* In 2001 a total of 5 men ran under 10.00, 16 men were under 10.00 in 2013
* In 2001 a single man ran under 20.00, 9 men were under 20.00 in 20.13
* In 2001 a total of 5 women ran under 11.00 (3 later receiving suspensions), 13 women were under 11.00 in 2013
In short, marks that would have raised eyebrows and caused whispers of suspected PED use during BALCO, are considered normal today. Marks that we were told during the BALCO investigation were impossible to achieve WITHOUT performance enhancing drugs are surpassed with regularity by today’s athletes and readily accepted.
And how are those eyebrow raising American sprinters of the BALCO era doing these days? Having a hard time keeping up! The new big dog in the yard is Jamaica. And like the US of the BALCO era, Jamaica is dominating the medal counts, the yearly lists, the World Record setting, the annual lists, the suspensions and negativity with the question of validity of the work being done by its anti doping agency. It’s the Jamaicans now producing stunning sprinters from average prospects, with the only difference in 2013 being that political correctness prevents the shaded whispers of suspectness; and the once laughed at claims of being "set up" or "unaware of what I was given" readily accepted in 2013. Ben Johnson you were about 25 years too early.
A decade after BALCO apparently the sport has learned nothing – and actually seems to be going in reverse in the anti doping arena. Ben Johnson caused embarrassment to Canada who launched a full scale investigation into doping – the Dubin Inquiry. The discovery of the BALCO collaborative had the US Government leading the investigation against leading American athletes and coaches.
What of today’s doping negative headlines? Turkey was in contention to host the 2020 Olympics while nine of its athletes were being banned. Moscow hosted the World Championships while twenty two of its athletes were being banned. Jamaican athletes continued to impress without a fully functional anti doping agency. And none of these has drawn the scrutiny of its governing body, let alone any sort of reprimand from WADA or the IAAF. No hearings, no inquiries.
If anything the IAAF has given the impression of turning a blind eye to the problems/issues that are clearly within its power to correct. It hasn’t improved its image, or the image of any of the aforementioned, instead causing the whispers to grow more quiet in what is now a politically correct society.
Instead the move to true blood testing and blood passports has been glacial. The IAAF’s cheerleading for the most incredible set of national improvements since the late 90s Chinese, while the associated anti doping agency lies dormant has been irresponsible. And holding the World Championships in a country with enough doping positives to bust at Blackjack was reprehensible.
If track and field were Apple Computer, the leadership in charge of "Anti Doping" would be fired, the department shut down, and heads would roll – and Apple would regain, if not improve market share. Perhaps that’s why we aren’t even in the discussion for market share – we’ve chosen to do the opposite! Are we so fragile as a sport that we can’t face our issues head on and deal with them?
Where are we regarding anti doping a decade after BALCO? No where near where we should be. The headlines are as bad, if not worse than they were a decade ago. The issues facing us then are still there today and no one is being held accountable – certainly not those at the highest levels of the sport. If we’re ever going to get ahead of doping it must start with accountability. The same accountability asked of Ben Johnson and Canada; and later asked of USATF/USADA must be asked of those committing today’s infractions or we will remain like the ostrich with our collective heads stuck in the sand.
The question I have at the end of the day, is this: why are any of these things still happening? Why are we talking about ineffective anti doping agencies; banned medal winners; nations with double digit bans; and host nations leading the doping parade? Why are we now on our third iteration of major doping issues?
We have the technology. After all we’ve gotten information on what’s going on inside doping from the best insiders out there including master minds Charlie Francis, and Victor Conte. Yet we remain like the dog chasing his tail – and frankly like the dog, I get the feeling that track and field is doing so to give the impression of effort knowing full well that actually catching the tail is not truly desired.
How about a true Death Penalty – goodbye, no return. Harsh? Yes, but that’s where the conversation needs to begin. It’s where the conversation has always started. Unfortunately each time it’s gotten too far away from a death penalty, because the sport as decided that if you “cooperate” we can give you time off for “good behavior”! Given what the sport has done with the information it has gotten from “informants”, we’d be better off simply imposing “death”.
How about the removal of ANY marks made at the elite level – not just those made during the "known" doping period. How about the same if after retirement, stored samples later test positive with new technology – your entire career erased! AND should you test positive in either fashion we want EVERYTHING back – medals, cash prizes, EVERYTHING. And we work with national governments to implement liens to seize anything not willingly returned. Because testing alone is NOT the only weapon available in this fight!
Harsh? Absolutely. But this 10 round fight is approaching 50 rounds and the sport is nearly too battered and bruised to continue this charade of a fight. At this point – a decade after BALCO – we should be working on BUILDING and PROMOTING track and field. We should be talking about adding new meets to the US schedule and planning to host A World Championships. We should be talking about a sprint resurgence in Nigeria, and African distance runners staying home to compete for strengthened federations. And we should be talking about pay equality for athletes across the board, instead of the Haves and Have Nots system currently in existence.
It’s time for this sport to stop chasing its tail on the doping issue and get abut the business of building and improving the sport before it fails in the wake of its own ineptitude.