It’s roughly 5:00 in the morning and I am giving my three month old son his early feeding. I’m looking at his already defined tree trunk legs that he inherited from both his father and mother. He had almost full control of his head and neck at two months. This week he has mastered rolling from his back to his stomach and on to his back again. All indications, real and imagined, are that he is going to be a strong one. For his mother and me, both former track athletes, the idea that he would carry on the family sprinting tradition is almost assumed. Sadly the rash of world class sprinters caught taking banned substances is a stark reminder that if he wants to be a world class track athlete there is surely a needle in his future.
Lance Armstrong recently made news (and caught hell) for saying that it was impossible for any cyclist to win the Tour de France during his era without cheating chemically. To be clear, I have zero sympathy for Lance Armstrong. I have no problem separating the great things his foundation has done for cancer awareness from the cheating and bullying that won him multiple Tours. That said, there was nothing incorrect in his statement. Armstrong’s seven Tour wins can claim no new victor because any rival close enough to claim that prize has long since been proven a cheat as well. Track and field, if it were to ever truly pick its scabs, would find itself with the same dilemma.
Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay’s failed drug tests, along with a mounting list of others, is a reminder of how dirty the sport has been in my lifetime. Starting from Ben Johnson it has been understood in the world of track and field that you either use or lose. Even the “clean” athletes have come under suspicions that have often felt less than speculative. I will never forget the large contingent of 1996 Olympic sprinters, including Carl Lewis, who suddenly needed orthodontics during the summer games who didn’t have them shortly before or long after. For the uninitiated, teeth and jaw alignment issues are a symptom of HGH use. While things like orthodontics are circumstantial evidence at best, the writing is clearly on the wall in the world of track.
Take a look at the top-10 100-meter times in history, with those by known drug offenders in red.
In my time as a sprinter I could neither afford nor was I fast enough for P.E.D’s to be a consideration. I was on the wrong side of the talent line. Even at my level however I raced against those who did. Most notably two Jamaican sprinters who faced IAAF sanctions as well as an athlete widely suspected to be their supplier. Being so far from the realm of P.E.D’s as an option I remember my righteous indignation at the banning. My older self questions whether I would have actually passed if given the option.
As an athlete turned parent, one hopes for two things: that his child follows in his footsteps and that the child exceeds the father’s abilities. I was faster than my father and I hope my son is faster than I. Sadly that would put my son closer to that line.
At some point my son will face some hard truths athletically. If he is lucky he will have to deal with the fact that mom and dad simply didn’t bless him with the genetics to be an elite athlete. Otherwise he will have to cope with being on the verge of elite status and the temptation of a medicinal breakthrough. No child should have to contemplate the price tag on their body and soul for the sake of making it in professional sports. I say child because we have reached a point where it is sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds now being forced to make these life altering, and as the likes of Marion Jones can tell you, potentially life shattering decisions.
It is a sourly pessimistic view on the sport I love and the state of athletics as a whole. I want to believe that Michael Johnson, the track idol of my youth was clean. Sadly common sense makes that hard. Track and field sorely needs Usain Bolt to be a natural athlete for he may be the last glimmer of hope for the unbound possibilities of the human form. In the sprinting world at least, he may be the last glimmer of an unrigged genetic lottery.