Redemption Song: USA Track Looks to Improve Image After Steroid Scandal
Des Moines, Iowa is the chosen venue for the 2013 U.S.A. Track and Field Championships on June 20 – 23. Over 800 athletes will be vying for a spot to represent the United States in the World Championships in Moscow in August. And, due to the prevalence of steroid use and doping allegations in the running world, the USATF is trumping up its media presence as it is feeling the proverbial cold shoulder from sponsors and spectators alike.
Charlie Francis lamented in the book ” Speed Trap” that, “it is impossible to be an elite level sprinter and not do drugs.”
But is that really true? The USATF has recently been tainted with doping allegations and the foundation is garnishing unwanted press attention. Does the USATF live under an ” umbrella of suspicion” and thus feels a need to flex its muscle? Should athletes be taking it upon themselves and voluntarily be drug tested?
The poster boy of elite runners, Justin Gatlin, is making headlines with his recent win in Rome over Usain Bolt. Gatlin won all five of his 100 meter races this year to date, which is impressive on its own accord. The fact that Gatlin medaled in London last summer after a four-year suspension from competition due to a positive drug test is a story in itself. He has regained the confidence of running fans and is scorching the track with his inspiring racing times as of late.
One of his staunchest supporters is Allyson Felix, a 200-meter standout sprinter who is on a mission to rebuild the image of track and field competitors. Her name has become synonymous with Project Believe, which encourages athletes to submit to voluntary drug testing.
Felix and 2005 world decathlon champion Brian Clay try to eradicate the doping stain that is on the sneakers of elite runners through this program. “The goal is to prove athletes are clean rather than athletes are dirty,” said Clay.Felix, whose forte is the 200 meters, emblazoned herself on a fast track to popularity with her involvement in Project Believe. Felix voluntarily signed up for the drug testing program and is winning over legions of runners and fans alike. Her slight build belies the strength and speed that is inherent to the woman known by the moniker “chicken legs.” She sprinted to Olympic glory in 2012 in London and was rewarded with three gold medals.But before Felix and Project Believe, the track world was losing steam thanks to high profile positive drug tests.
In 2006, Gatlin tested positive during a random drug screening after setting the running world on fire with his world-record equaling 9.77-second finish in the 100 meters. The result of his positive test was a mandatory four-year ban from competitive racing, and he was stripped of his Olympic gold medal that he won at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Female track athletes were not immune from the fall-out of doping allegations. Marion Jones, who had the strength, speed and stamina of a gazelle, won five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney. Initially, she tried to run and power her way through the ever present headwind of steroid use accusations, yet succumbed to the race as part of the BALCO scandal that rocked baseball and was stripped of her Olympic hardware.
Jones storied fall from grace did not get a rewrite, as she served six months in prison in 2008 for a check-fraud scheme and steroid use.
In retrospect, a program such as Project Believe might have forced Jones and others to face the ugly truth about their drug use earlier.
Track and field athletes have long had a storied disadvantage when it comes to income potential. Sponsorships are the norm and the leverages of negotiating are next to non existent for track stars. Project Believe is a positive step to slowly erase the black eye that steroid use and doping allegations have brought and revitalize sponsorship interest in runners since it shows responsibility on the part of the athletes to pledge not to use steroids.
In the next few days, coveted spots for Moscow are on the line, and a few track disputes will be settled in under 10 seconds flat. Showmanship, bragging rights, and a bit of banter will be on the line at the Drake Championships this weekend.
After a four-year ban, subsequent return, and a punishing sprint of a race against Bolt recently, I am hoping to see Gatlin, who is earning the nickname “Superman” on the track, come out with a clean, resounding win.