The longer I competed in Olympic sports the more I began to realize the constant conflicts between the amateur ideal and the profession. The conflicts pose serious challenges to the governing bodies, meet directors, and the athletes themselves. This sport has two masters: the Amateur and the Professional. Historically, the amateur ideal has dominated the sport. And it’s positioned to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
I moved to California in 1998 to train at Stanford. I had a car loaded with all my possessions plus $200 to my name. Like many before me my journey to California involved chasing dreams of gold – literally. Despite the fact that I’d won an outdoor NCAA title in the shot put in 1997, neither sponsors nor agents nor meet directors seemed to have any interest in aiding my career. I got a job working as a financial consultant for a large brokerage firm. My thoughts were: 1) Avoid manual labor as that will negatively impact my training. 2) Find a job that allowed the greatest flexibility or one that started early in the mornings and finished early in the afternoons. My first job started around 6am every morning and concluded between 3 and 6pm every afternoon. It wasn’t perfect. I made it work. After all the Olympics are an amateur event, aren’t they?
Shortly after I moved to California I received a letter from USADA notifying me that I now qualified for the national testing pool. Honestly, I don’t remember what they called it, but the letter arrived with a bunch of paper work to fill out. At the time I was proud of it and felt like I’d been admitted to a secret club. I can remember the first time I was tested as part of the “knock and pee” program at my first job. We completed the test in the conference room of my office building. My bosses used it as a talking point to potential clients. “We have an Olympic hopeful. He’s getting tested right now.” Like spectators at the zoo they would walk slowly by the large window pointing at “their guy” and talking about the drug testing. To me it was a blessing. It was a way I could prove to the world that I was a clean athlete. And so it was. My employers tolerated it – even took pride in the inconveniences they could market as part of their way to support a US Olympic hopeful. I used it as a way to legitimize my pursuit of the 2000 Olympics to them. It was strangely mutually beneficial. The drug-testers would show up quarterly. They were friendly, very aware of the inconveniences of their presence. They played their role perfectly too.
A Quick Side Note on the Professionalization of Track and Field
The 2000 Olympic year was a breakout year for me. It was that year I made my first Olympic team and somehow transitioned from the Olympic ideal of an amateur athlete into professional athlete. At the time I was unaware of the on-going professionalization of track and field that officially started in 1992. It was in 1992 that the IOC allowed professional athletes to officially compete in the Olympic Games. Some of you may remember the first Dream Team and the fights over logos that well-placed American flag ended up settling. Those fights were taking place in track and field as well as athletes enlisted as many sponsors as possible. They competed for clubs, sponsors, and club sponsors, effectively creating multiple streams of revenue off one performance. And for the first time there was a real profession of “Olympic Sports Athlete.”
I didn’t understand any of this when I was in college. None of my fellow teammates had ever signed a sponsorship contract to compete post-collegiately, at least no one that I knew well. Furthermore, none of peers talked openly about the profession. They saw no value in sharing information that could materially cost them later. So I didn’t learn any of this before signing my first contract and as a result I was unaware of the profession of track and field. As I made the leap from Olympic hopeful to Olympian to professional, I began to focus on ways I could optimize my income rather than ways I could win an Olympic gold medal. Fortunately, those two are very tightly correlated in my event. It occurred to me in hindsight that the governance structures hadn’t (and still haven’t) made the leap from the amateur model to a professional model. Almost all of the rules governing the amateur side of the sport are grounded in “protecting” the image of the amateur athlete. And I never understood why until recently. I believe the governing bodies desire to maintain as much of the amateur ethos as possible to protect the long term viability of the Olympic Games ,but that’s another article for another time.
Back to Anti-Doping
And so it was with anti-doping. Athletes submitted to an anti-doping policy in return for “certified clean” stamp of approval by the IOC. That all changed in 2001 when the news broke about a little drug called THG – a PED that was previously undetectable. It was identified by USADA only after a “whistle blower” turned it in for testing. Though the rumors on the circuit say the “whistle blower” was actually a disgruntled coach mad that he no longer had access to the drugs for his athletes. It doesn’t really matter who turned the substance in and for what reason. The collateral damage created by an institutionalized doping program in the US had a wide-sweeping impact. “Designer” drugs dominated the headlines as superstar athletes like Marion Jones and others publicly defended themselves by stating “I’ve never tested positive.”
The collateral damage produced a major shift in the policies of the anti-doping agencies. The relatively young WADA led by Dick Pound shifted from an organization truly concerned about the health and safety of athletes into a pseudo-wannabe police force. Many of the new testers adopted that tone and it made an already uncomfortable process more stressful on the athlete. New “whereabouts” rules came into effect. Compliance became an issue for athletes. Non-compliant athletes could suffer bans for filing errors or missed tests. Three missed tests in a year (now 18 months) could result in a two-year ban. Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like the anti-doping agencies were shocked to discover that cheaters were trying to beat the system with designer drugs. The whole process was a massive blow to the credibility of the drug-testing and to “clean” athletes around the world.
Shortly after the Balco scandal broke I remember feeling the weight of those assumptions – associative guilt – come crashing back on me. Friends, media, and even peers would ask me about my knowledge of the drug underworld. “I don’t know” was not accepted as an answer. All of the negative stereotypes applied to power athletes came rushing back 10 fold. If I wasn’t guilty of something directly, apparently I knew who and how the drug cheats were beating the system. You’re a shot putter. You must know, but I didn’t. I didn’t know how these athletes were beating the system. I’d hear rumors occasionally of a rogue doctor here or a new special treatment. This world was foreign to me. I didn’t seek it out. So I chose ignorance. I chose to look at the world through naïf eyes. I chose to accept there are some things beyond my control – to internalize.
A chosen ignorance is blissful. It allows an athlete to focus on the only thing he can really influence – himself. On more than one occasion I saw fellow “clean” athletes self-destruct. It usually started with overtraining brought on by attempting to replicate a program from the former DDR or USSR. The volume and intensity of many of these programs from the 60’s and 70’s are nearly impossible without the benefit of drugs. The onset of overtraining is accompanied by a growing depression. Over time the depression leads to paranoia. Accusations start, then “what if’s?” “What if there were a drug that wasn’t on the banned substance list? What if you could take something not on the banned substance list that produced this result? “ The degradation can continue for weeks or months and usually concluded in one of two ways: 1) Do drugs and execute the programs as written. 2) Completely lose control in a way that required actual mental health care.
That’s why I’m writing and sharing these stories. The current system isn’t working. It’s just not, otherwise we wouldn’t see athletes making the same mistake over and over again. So it makes me question those that have created the system. Why aren’t you changing it? What value does the current system add? Are you making an impact?
And that’s where I’ll pick up next time.