All that is good and pure about athletics (track & field) was on display in Eugene, Oregon at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. The ultimate make-or-break meet showcased the glory of sport’s purest forms before a hard-core fan base in the sports’ one true competitive shrine in America. Yet all that purity and goodness was being presented against a political backdrop of muck and mud which has left the sport mired in a purgatory of its own construction.
What surely is an existential crisis in athletics is one that has been self-inflicted over a long, extended period. Some would say it’s congenital, beginning at birth when the sport was first organized in the 19th century cleaving to established social class and economic lines, what we know today as Haves and Have-nots.
That fault line was more or less incidental in the first half of the 20th century when Olympic sport was an inconsequential diversion. But it began to take on greater import when the Olympics became the surrogate battleground for the Cold War between Soviet-led Communism and the Western democracies, and performance-enhancing drugs were first introduced in a more or less systematic way.
The most prominent culprit was East Germany, a country of only 17 million that knew it couldn’t compete with the U.S. and their Soviet overlords in the race to be first to the moon. So they planted their flag in the fecund soul of Olympic Sports. But soon enough the rot expanded west when TV increased the value of the Games and polished medals could be turned to advertising gold. As more and more dollars came into the sport, a conflict of interest arose as the drug-testers were also in the position as the sports’ marketers.
When presented with positive drug results from marquee athletes – who convinced themselves they were only leveling the playing field against their Communist rivals – the sport-marketers couldn’t afford to suspend the athletes for fear of losing their own sponsors in the process.
Caught in this Catch-22, the sport saw one cynical cover-up after another, which extended until the entire enterprise had lost its moral center. Yet through it all the athletes always remained at the bottom of the monetary totem pole, some willing to try anything to elevate their standing.
Nothing personal against Russia, but state sponsored cheating? There’s nowhere to go from that. Morally, it is indefensible. The current stench rising in Rio is not coming from the pollution in its waters alone. It is one thing for striving athletes to cross ethical lines. Pressures of poverty and greed can lead to such behavior. But when the state itself essentially says, ‘F___ it!’, we are witnessing a total perversion of the very purpose of governing. And we wonder now how individuals get led off onto nihilistic paths of destruction against those very institutions?
You don’t just put a Band-Aid on that kind of wound. These days Russia says no former dopers will be allowed to compete in Rio, and doping will be a criminal offense. But that is all a little too late, a little too facile. This is a classic go-to-your-room moment with Russia as a kid having acted spoiled and bratty, who now says, “OK, I won’t do it again.” But once again the IAAF and IOC find themselves in the role of potentially complicit parents if the punishment isn’t proscriptive.
This is where state services should step in and take over. But in this game who fills the role of protector? Who is the sport’s disciplinarian? Really, where the are the effing adults?
The last two weeks of competition at the U.S. Trials and European Championships were a needed distraction from the hard truths facing the sport and the coming Games. But soon it will be back to business as usual, and business as usual isn’t very good business for anyone at all.