In this bitterly pitted world where truth and honor have fallen like so many past pillars of a once civil society, who can afford to take anything at face value anymore?
And yet with his sun shiny day 2:01:39 marathon world record in Berlin this past Sunday, Kenyan marathon master Eliud Kipchoge has risen to new heights of acclaim and glory. Already considered the best marathon runner in history, with ten wins in eleven starts, including the Olympic gold medal in Rio 2016 and an exhibition 2:00:25 super run in Italy 2017, the 33 year-old has long been recognized as a champion’s champion for his understated elegance and gentlemanly comportment.
I have long said that a sport must be fortunate in those who become its champions, for such designations must be earned not conferred. Nothing against previous marathon record holder Dennis Kimetto, but in terms of PR value to the game, Kipchoge is a major upgrade, as was the tolkienesque Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie a decade ago.
Notwithstanding, despite all the hard-earned recognition that has come Kipchoge’s way, it is inevitable in these cynical times that some will raise questions about the legitimacy of the new record. As one long-time associate wrote to me right afterwards:
“Sadly, in today’s world, where we know how easy it is to beat the system, we have to hold them all under a blanket suspicion of sorts. Micro-dosing EPO, meldonium-like drugs making the rounds that are not illegal (yet) but have big PED effects, other designer drugs, so many westerners training in Ethiopia and Kenya, where the testers don’t go. Not only the Africans, it’s everywhere, even in the good old USA. Cheaters have always been a step ahead, now they’re 2 steps ahead.
“You’ve seen the WADA Report saying almost 40% of T&Fers have or are doping. Then that survey from the 2011 World Championships where 37% of athletes admitted to doping.”
Yes, it is all very unfortunate, but that is the world in which Kipchoge ran his new record. It is all a very jumbled up, mixed up world with very little in the way of universal conciliation.
Ask yourself, what would be the reaction if any other athlete ran such a time in such a fashion? When Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana won the 2016 Women’s Olympic 10,000 in a smashing 29:A17.45 world record with similar ease, the doubters were out just as fast. And the women’s middle distance community is fraught with deep ethical and moral divisions centering on basic genetic definitions.
But what is any athlete to do, pull back because of the reaction people might have? What recourse do athletes have in such a toxic, post-truth environment? No matter how above reproach one may have been throughout his/her career, how do you argue or protest against innuendo and guilt by association?
No, today excellence itself is the victim of the sport’s inability or unwillingness to confront the cheats and short-cutters throughout the years. Doubt is what comes of institutional corruption, payoffs, and a win-at-all-costs philosophy. Look at the reaction to Russia’s recent reinstatement by WADA, and the IAAF’s negation of that reinstatement. Today, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Is it fair to Eliud Kipchoge who has never been anything but the humble, gentleman athlete? It’s not fair to the sport, either, but, unfortunately, as with institutions far and wide, running’s own comportment has not been so honorable, its past pronouncements not so honest.
So for now, even when greatness is put on display, there is still a side-eye look given, a world-weary, open-palm shrug displayed, wondering if it’s all just a little too good to be true.
How’s that for a world we’ve created?