We see a version of the honor system every weekend at road races across the globe where thousands of strangers align themselves into a solid grid behind posted pace signs. But while runners might consider themselves an honest lot compared to the general population, there are less than honorable types mixed in as well, ranging from small-time PR fibbers to major event thieves who utilize performance enhancing drugs to claim what others rightfully deserve.
Asking human beings to self-regulate is to welcome disappointment, as any IRS agent or local priest hearing confessions can attest. But from a purely physiological standpoint, bad behavior can in part be attributed to hardware. The area of the brain responsible for self-regulation is the frontal cortex, which is a late-bloomer. It develops gradually over adolescence, though in some cases never at all. Accordingly, we must protect ourselves against the lesser angels within.
From the Ten Commandments on down men have attempted to regulate behavior through laws and their consequences. But here we are again and again, and again and again, and maybe once more
staring at a headline announcing another positive drug test that tears the guts out of this sport, leading us to wonder at what point does the insanity definition kick in: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?
It is with this question in mind that we absorb the news of Olympic Marathon champion Jemima Sumgong‘s positive doping test for the banned blood booster EPO announced this past week by the IAAF.
The Abbott World Marathon Majors released a statement following the announcement, as Sumgong was the leader in the current Series X women’s point standings that ends with next Monday’s Boston Marathon. Now that series has been put on hold until the Sumgong case is resolved. And that comes on the heels of three other AWMM women’s series drug failures.
Noting their distress, the World Marathon Majors reminded us that “we are gaining ground in our long-standing fight against doping”, are committed to eradicating doping, and “in conjunction with the IAAF, (have) built and funded one of the largest targeted testing pool of athletes, with an aim of requiring more than 150 individuals to submit to out-of-competition testing a minimum of six times a year.”
While this additional World Marathon Majors funding helped catch Ms. Sumgong, by their own admission the AWMMs are only ‘gaining ground in our long-standing fight’. In other words, they are still losing. There is more catching up to do.
Now let’s consider another industry in which cheating is an endemic problem, gambling. In Las Vegas alone the gambling industry is greater in scope than running’s niche industry will ever be. With all the money at stake there is a constant enticement for people to take short cuts to acquire it. Accordingly, the city, state and industry invest enormous sums into protecting the integrity of their franchise. But the primary watch dog in their system is the one which has the most skin in the game and the most to lose, the individual gaming house.
Watch the Martin Scorsese film Casino to see how multi-layered a Las Vegas hotel’s security system is. The Bellagio Hotel alone has 2000 cameras connected to 50 monitors. Sensors are everywhere, from room keys to slot machines to ATMs. What’s more, lists are maintained by the Nevada Gaming Commission that identify past criminals who have to be kept from damaging the system again.
Is this system flawless? No, but it is woven tightly, and it discourages most people from even making an attempt to game the system.
Now let’s look at how the sport of road running protects itself. We have the IAAF and WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, plus in-competition testing at certain events, and now an extra six out-of-competition tests of 150 athletes funded by the World Marathon Majors. But what is still missing in this security net is a more in-depth, broad-based, random out-of-competition testing protocol by the individual events.
The World Marathon Majors and IAAF Gold Label events constitute the most lucrative and well established segment of the road racing marketplace. As such it is primarily up to them to protect that marketplace and the investment they have made in their professional fields. Currently, there are 47 IAAF Gold Label events (including all six World Marathon Majors), plus 20 Silver Label, and 23 Bronze Label events ranging from 10k to the marathon.
Even with the additional testing by the World Marathon Majors, the fragmentation that has always defined road racing since its amateur days is still enabling unscrupulous athletes, managers, doctors, chemists, and federation officials to take advantage of the cracks in the system.
With women’s Olympic champion Jemima Sumgong testing positive for the banned blood booster EPO, the sport is once again shadowed by doubts of illegitimate performance that taint not just one performance, but all performances. And based on the biblical imputation of sin from Adam to all men, so too, do the positive drug tests of a few athletes impugn all professional runners. (Look how quickly red flags were raised when Kenya’s Joyceline Jepkosgei ran a world record 64:52 April 1 at the Prague Half Marathon).
But how to fill the cracks and fund the expanded drug testing program? I believe the answer is to take the money from those whose actions have led to this advanced state, those who have exhibited questionable behavior. In fact, the Vienna City Marathon instituted such a protocol several years ago, levying an across the board 3% charge against prize and bonus money to offset the cost of its in-competition testing.
“Wolfgang Konrad the (Vienna) race director thinks the athletes who are also part of the system should be paying their part of the testing since they are the ones we are checking,” confirmed Mark Milde, race director BMW Berlin Marathon, and elite athlete coordinator for Vienna. “It usually relates to that amount paid from the prize money and bonus money.”
Next Monday’s 121st Boston Marathon will award a prize purse of $706,000 in the open division. If to guarantee a clean field would require a weekly testing program in the 12 week training build up to the race, what would that program cost?
Though the rule of thumb suggests $500 per drug test, given that each program is custom fitted, for the sake of discussion let’s assign a full blood panel a cost of $1000.
Boston has approximately two dozen top invited professional athletes in its 2017 field, 13 men, and 11 women. That is $24,000 per week X 12 weeks, or $288,000 for a full complement of out-of-competition testing. But with that many tests, a discount might be in order, say 15%, which would reduce the fee to $244,800.
Thus, in order to protect the integrity of the event and its results, Boston would remove $244,800 from the $706,000 prize purse, leaving $461,200 to disperse in winnings. Other AWMMs along with IAAF Gold Label events would assign to doping control a similar one-third percentage of their prize purses (or appearance fee budgets depending which method the individual race uses), in order to draw the net as tight as possible.
There may be other mechanisms to fund this advanced protocol, but for conversation starters let’s keep it simple, and just use the prize and bonus purses.
I can already hear the uproar. Not everyone is guilty, why should all suffer? For the same reason that an army drill sergeant will penalize the entire platoon for the offense of a single boot camp recruit. The purpose isn’t to catch cheaters, but to alter the intention to cheat that has so damaged the game.
So, sorry, athletes, but your bad apples (and their handlers and enablers) have soured the entire barrel. And though the system is better than before, it still isn’t stringent enough to save the good name of the sport.
The top running events are already spending huge amounts on marketing, promotion, media, air travel, housing, etc. But by farming out the primary doping control to an outside agency, they are continuing to allow the sport that they are the foundation for to crumble in the public square. By making doping control the primary focus now is nothing more than recognizing the existential threat that confronts them.
At some point the system will reach a tipping point where the money spent on doping will reduce the cost of damage control, while lessening the drop in sales due to the constant negativity associated with doping. Athletes will even begin policing themselves, and the potential cheaters will finally realize they can’t beat the house anymore.
I read an article published by CBS today that uncovered what is said to be staggering drug use among Navy Seals, one of the most elite units in the American armed forces.
“I feel like I’m watching our foundation, our culture erode in front of our eyes,” said Captain Jamie Sands, the commander of 900 SEALs based on the East Coast.
I hear you, Captain Sands. The deep cracks in the mantel of civilization are beginning to show. We are like everybody else, no better, no worse. Just also in need of fixing.
The time has come to either put a stop to professional running altogether, or to fully institute it. This Wild West, every event its own thing, no longer really amateur, nor truly professional is bleeding the sport dry, while enabling the less honorable to rob it of its inherent honor. Spend now. Save the sport.