Seattle, WA. — With Athletics Kenya releasing news Thursday that three Kenyan marathoners face doping bans for failing drug tests, and former three-time steeplechase world champion Moses Kiptanui adding his voice to those expressing the opinion that there is more PED drug use going on in Kenya than previously believed, it was timely to find the World Marathon Majors release a new drug policy this week. The World Marathon Majors is made up of the New York City, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons.
While not aimed at any particular nation or region, the new policy is an acknowledgment that the same temptations are in play in Africa as anywhere else. And having been to both Kenya and Ethiopia several times, and as recently as last year, I can tell you that the argument against the likelihood of drug use in East Africa has always been more about cost, availability and regimentation than the desire to partake. Plus, the number of talented athletes is so huge, and some regions so remote as to negate the practicality of widespread drug use.
However, all one need do is recall that when I first visited Africa in 1998 there were no cell phones, internet cafes or wireless technology whatsoever. In other words, things have changed; modernity rolls in quite quickly. And with more and more opportunities to perform around the world, the temptation to lift oneself out of poverty, by whatever means necessary, grows right along with them. Therefore, the need to increase testing should mirror that same pattern of growth.
But testing is expensive, not just in the form of the tests themselves, but in the human cost of placing testers in areas where athletes live and train. That’s why I found it interesting to note that a major World Marathon Majors initiative should be released under a London Marathon letterhead rather than a World Marathon Majors’ one. It points to the continued muddled nature of this sport from an organizational standpoint.
When you look at the bottom of the London Marathon headed press release, you find the names of the six PR heads of the individual WMM events. But which one to call for comment? I know London is in the forefront of this issue, but who officially speaks for the World Marathon Majors? This weekend the WMM is in Tokyo for the Tokyo Marathon, welcoming its newest member to the fold. But here we are after seven years and there still isn’t a World Marathon Majors home office, a unified public relations person, much less an organizational head. It begs the question, is this fiefdom format in any way a limiting factor in running’s drug enforcement efforts?
While the six WMMs have the wherewithal to fund drug testing on site — and London is actively trying to get more running events on board, even willing to share their legal contracts with other events — without a major, across-the-board funding mechanism to institute testing out of competition, and at less-than-marathon distance events, the cracks will remain far too wide to effectively police the sport.
On a similar note, beginning Sunday February 24th Running USA’s annual conference will be held in Savannah, Georgia, an industry-wide conclave of American road running. The conference theme is “A Bold Past, A Bright Future”, and like past gatherings, there will be inspirational and educational speakers and panelists, ideas and best practices presented and exchanged, annual awards, networking opportunities and more. But you can bet the issue of drug testing isn’t even on its radar. That would require actual cooperation across event borders, a hegemony impasse that the industry has been loath to address since the sport’s birth.
Finally, this weekend I am in Seattle, Washington for the third Brooks PR Invitational, an indoor track meet which will showcase 140 of the nation’s finest high school track athletes. But here again not every state authorizes their kids to run in out-of-state competitions, feeling there is enough competition to be found within their own state. But at the highest levels — think Mary Cain, the high school sensation from Bronxville, New York racing successfully against the nation’s top pros on the USATF indoor circuit — that is not the case at all. Therefore this archaic thinking actually hinders the growth of the sport and the opportunities for individual talents.
So no matter where you look in this sport, from the high school level all the way to the professional ranks, it’s all the same parochial orientation, limiting, restricting, protective, and small-minded. And we wonder why the sport isn’t taken seriously by the general public.