SALAZAR FIRES BACK

New York City 1981

New York City 1981

At long last Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar has come out with his response to the allegations made by a joint BBC/Pro Publica investigation regarding performance enhancing drugs and the misuse of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) at the Nike Oregon Project. I urge you to read both David Epstein’s original investigative piece (linked above) and Alberto’s two-part rebuttal here and here.

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But what has always been a head-scratcher to me as I followed the story over the last three weeks (and after knowing Alberto for most of our adult lives) was how so many people knew about the Androgel, the testosterone cream that was one of the main contentions of the investigation and follow up stories.

According to a Letsrun.com headline linking to a Daily Mail story out of England: “The AndroGel was so prevalent”

But that’s my point. Seems Alberto was telling anyone and everyone about it, not hiding it or making it all secret.  He told massage therapist John Stiner to clean out the Park City, Utah apartment that the NOP team used as a high-altitude training camp, all the while knowing there were needles and vials and a tube of Androgel there? That is who you tell to clean up your drug pit, an independent contractor who is not in on the cabal? Continue reading

TIME FOR A CHANGE?

six_million_dollar_manWhen is a man not a man?  Whoever thought such a question would have any currency?  We might have chuckled at the campy 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors, or chomped through several over-priced buttered popcorn boxes watching Arnold as the Terminator, but with technology rapidly replacing worn out parts —  or, in the case of Caitlyn Jenner (nee Bruce), unwanted parts — we are reaching the point where man and machine may soon be indistinguishable, and ethics will once again be sorely tested.

Rules and regulations are instituted with the goal of establishing an even playing field where fair competition can be conducted. How else to determine a true champion? But it is only when we all agree upon and adhere to those rules and regulations that such a goal can be achieved.  The minute there are competing interpretations is when we come into existential conflict.

Periodically, as today, there is a school of thought which throws up its hands, and in frustration declares, “just give in and let performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) be allowed in sport.” After all, goes the argument, although there are health risks involved with PED use, by their nature sports are inherently risky, and PEDs would simply be another risk associated with participation. Plus, with medical supervision those risks would be largely eliminated.

And there is some logic behind that frustration and its corollary suggestion, as the best efforts of the testers have been consistently behind the users since PEDs began coming into wide spread use in the 1960s. But since there is not a clear boundary between “safe” and “unsafe” PED use, the line would only be shifted, not erased. So is it ever as simple as just turning the page? Continue reading

FALLING APART AT THE SEEMS

Alberto Salazar

Alberto Salazar

Good news — Bad news on this National Running Day 2015.  The bad news comes from the BBC investigative show Panorama, which, in conjunction with Pro Publica raised disquieting questions about alleged drug use and unethical practices by Coach Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project.  I won’t retrace the allegations. You can read the complete story at the Pro Publica link above. *

Suffice it to say that performance-enhancing drugs have been the bane of sports for over sixty years. How many of the current track records do people really believe were achieved on the up-and-up? Today, it is damned if you do run fast, jump high, or throw far (see Justin Gatlin), and damned if you don’t (everybody else).

I’m no apologist for drug use, but with the political conflagration at FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and the corruption  everyone knows to be endemic in athletics, where does the concept of fair play even begin to come into consideration for the lowly athletes of this world? Kris Kristofferson wrote about such displacement with “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Continue reading

BIG 3 DOWN TO 1

Ritz pulls away from Webb at 2000 Foot Locker XC

Ritz pulls away from Webb at 2000 Foot Locker XC. Ryan Hall in a distant third.

When high school seniors Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, and Ryan Hall met at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in Orlando, Florida, America’s running fans were all but salivating at the prospect of what lie ahead, not just in Orlando, but in the careers to come.  All three precocious talents had flashed early signs of excellence on a register America hadn’t seen in a generation.  Now, on December 9, 2000 on the Walt Disney World Shades of Green Golf Course, the Big Three from Michigan, Virginia and California would match up head-to-head-to-head for the first time.

Temps were high that day for the boy’s race, humidity, too.  Just the same, talk of a sub-4:30 opening mile and a sub-9:00 deuce buzzed over the internet chat rooms as regional fan bases built cases for their respective heroes.

As undefeated returning champion, Rockford High School senior Dathan Ritzenhein’s game was pressure.  And after an initial 4:46 mile, the whip strong Michigander applied it unsparingly.

Pulling away from a shocked Alan “I’m ready for anything” Webb with a 4:33 second mile, Ritz went on to win that 5K battle and notch a historic second straight Foot Locker national title. His 20 second margin of victory put a hard shine on it, as it was, and remains, the largest gap in Foot Locker history. The Virginia miler held strong for second, while the California cruiser Ryan Hall showed third in the high Florida humidity (Ryan’s future wife Sara Bei went from last to first to win the 2000 girl’s Foot Locker title).

Over the ensuing 15 years the Big Three, as they came to be known, have gone on to author memorable, historic performances as records have been set, Olympic teams made, though none has yet to cop an Olympic medal. But as we enter the spring of 2015, only Dathan Ritzenhein is still exploring the outer limits of his youthful running promise. Continue reading

RACING RULES AT USATF INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

USATF_2015_Indoor_Championship_Logo.jpg.aspxIn our time-conscious athletics world we sometimes forget that a championship — hell, any race – is first and foremost a competition amongst athletes, not simply a time trial.  Thus, with pacers removed from the agenda throughout this past weekend’s USATF Indoor Championships in Boston, athletics fans got to see a myriad of tactical finals that produced some champions who might not have been considered favorites going in, or been winners if the races had been paced.

When a pacer is plugged into a race a number of things happen.  1) the brain is turned off as everyone — athletes and audience — knows exactly what is coming.  The only question to be answered is, ‘can you run that pace or can’t you?’  2) pecking order is an unspoken but powerful inhibitor, meaning the runner with the biggest appearance fee, and for whom the pace is being established, is automatically ushered into the catbird seat behind the pacer.  Another competitor can break that rule if he/she chooses, but in so doing risks losing future invitations. 3) no actual racing takes place until the pacer steps off, erasing a lot of any surprise that might emerge from the proceedings.

As we saw in Boston, however, runners in non-paced races have gears and gas available to constantly reshuffle their positions, both in and out from the rail, as well as up and back in the pack. This is because they haven’t been stretched to the anaerobic edge by a predetermined pace.  Instead the pack generates its own speed and constitution from amidst the roiling effort. As a consequence we got to see how the middle distance races in the USATF Indoor Championships became elastic bands of surge and resettle, then surge again as the packs reshuffled every time another racer or two hit the gas to ensure a better pack position for the final attack. This kind of racing keeps both the athletes and the audience in a state of rapt attention, precisely because they don’t know what is going to happen. Continue reading

DEFLATE-GATE & RUNNING

DeflateGateDeflate-Gate is another example of how out-of-step running is in today’s sporting world. In a classic example of “all publicity is good publicity”, the NFL is going to see the highest rated annual TV show now go through the retractable roof next Sunday in Arizona’s University of Phoenix Stadium for Super Bowl XLIX, all because some footballs had two psi too little air in their bladder last weekend at the AFC Championship game in Foxborough, Mass.  Or maybe running is just too pure for what the world has become.

You see, foot racing is really simple, point A to point B, first one in wins. No style points, no arbitrary ref calls (except for that indoor 3000 last year at the USATF Championship), and pretty much conscientious out-of-competition drug testing.  If you lose, it’s relatively easy to accept, because it’s all on you. It’s not because the coach didn’t put you in, or the guy didn’t throw or kick you the ball.  It’s start to finish, plain and simple. See you there. Obviously, there is cheating, but as we’ve seen with the recent Russian and Kenyan situations, the fight against it is ongoing.

Yet with its DeFlate-Gate kerfuffle the NFL has no one to blame (or congratulate, depending on your level of cynicism) but itself. It wanted it both ways, to seem to have a level playing field, while allowing the foxes to run the hen houses. So Instead of every team playing with the same footballs, like every baseball team plays with the same baseballs — a no-brainer in terms of an even playing field — the NFL caved in to the Dynamic Duo, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. 

In 2006 Brady and Manning lobbied for visiting teams to be allowed to bring 12 broken-in balls of their own to every away game, because God knows it wasn’t enough to strip defenses from playing, you know, defense – for heaven sakes, don’t breath hard on the wide receivers — no, with all those passing records making billionaires out of millionaires and millionaires out of everyone else, and the NFL rising above baseball to become America’s new pastime, a little wink, wink, nod, nod at how the game is played isn’t going to be noticed, is it?  Yeah, and all those home runs crushed by pharmaceuticaly enhanced head-swellers, where was the harm in that?  Continue reading

ATHLETICS: A HOUSE ON FIRE

IMG_440106424Honolulu, Hi. —   It is easy to get lolled into a complacent repose here on the magical isle of Oahu. The rolling surf and easy trade winds loosen even the stiffest resolve, and one can forget, for the moment, the sulfurous zeitgeist wafting over the sport of athletics of late.

From the doping positives and allegations of wide-spread cheating and corruption coming out of the distance Eden of Kenya, to the hardened realpolitik of alleged payoffs to cover failed drug tests in Russia — or to secure championship site selection by the IAAF —  from the overturning of a mandate-level membership vote by a know-better USATF Board of Directors, to the potential loss of root and branch events like the 10,000, shot put, triple jump, and 200 meters on the track at the Olympics, there seems to be a sense of a house on fire on all fronts of athletics.

Maybe this is the entropy toward which any old and failed model eventuates. Maybe this is how the culture of greed and corruption loops back on itself in an ironic twist of Shakespearean delight.   In any regard, it is clear that the sport has completely lost its way.

Those in charge seem less passionate about the game than about the easy rewards that come from positions within extra-national oligarchies that lack adequate oversight and deal in the murky world of international banking.  It is why this sport is so attractive to so many of the wrong people as well as to so many great athletes and well-meaning supporters.

But there has always been the sense that the problem cannot be solved by simply rejiggering the NGB model or by replacing fallen men with more upstanding counterparts.  Though every sport has its difficulties and foibles, other successful sports have long since separated the necessary duties of governance, grass roots development and national team selection from the very different requirements of a truly professional sport.   Continue reading