Hitting the Wall

Track and field's unsportsmanlike collision with drugs and cheating

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
"There were so many black eyes for running this year," sighs Joe Douglas, one of America's top distance coaches (he is Carl Lewis's personal manager) who has long called for increased drug testing. "Some of it may be good for us eventually, just like last year when [the drug controversy that swept] the Tour de France made cycling look hard at itself. But if the only thing fans take away is that this sport is full of dopers and cheats, we're in big trouble." This is one explanation behind the dismal state of international track and field, a sport that even as late as last July seemed poised to reverse 25 years of declining attendance figures and desultory TV ratings by reigniting fan interest during its pre-Olympic season. Instead, the season stumbled in spectacular fashion, flailing amid unsportsmanlike conduct, accusations of drug use, and a humiliating marketing debacle.

The trouble started in late July when officials announced that Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor had tested positive for cocaine. (When Sotomayor—who is revered as something of a national hero in Cuba—was stripped of his Pan Am Games gold medal, track fan Fidel Castro suggested that Sotomayor's sample must have been tampered with by pro-democracy forces.) Days later, Dennis Mitchell, one of America's top 100-meter speedsters, was suspended for two years for having elevated levels of testosterone. (Mitchell attempted to explain away his running afoul of antidoping policies by insisting that he'd simply been having enviably excessive amounts of sex and beer.)

Then, during the third week in August, it was announced that Jamaica's storied sprinter Merlene Ottey, 39, holder of more World Championship medals (14) than any other runner in history, had tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. Ottey withdrew from the Worlds and will almost certainly be suspended from international competition. Even if she appeals the results of the tests, she could miss next summer's Olympics, and her career, for all intents and purposes, would be over.

While Ottey may have passed from the scene, nandrolone offers the unsavory prospect of continuing to make headlines for quite some time. One of the least toxic of steroids, nandrolone has recently been found in samples from at least six top athletes, including Britain's 1992 Olympic gold medal sprinter Linford Christie. All of these athletes claim to have ingested it unwittingly—and they're not without some support: Several toxicologists say that certain allowable over-the-counter nutritional supplements can produce positive test results because they contain nandrolone. Regardless, every athlete will be screened for nandrolone at the Olympics.

The drug controversies would have been enough for any sport, but track and field's misfortunes were compounded by an equally embarrassing dust-up over cheating. The trouble surfaced in early August, just as sports publicists began hyping the fact that Kenyan steeplechaser Bernard Barmasai was only two race wins away from a $1 million check to be awarded to any runner who could sweep his or her event at seven major European meets (the so-called Golden League circuit). The promotional scheme, conjured up by Golden League directors to draw spectators to the events, backfired when Barmasai admitted that on August 11, at Zurich's Weltklasse meet, he'd convinced Kenyan teammate Christopher Koskei to lose, thus allowing Barmasai to stay in the million-dollar hunt. Professing confusion amid the resulting uproar (in which he was disqualified for the prize), Barmasai said, "What we did was not cheating. It was tactics."

Even amid these scandals, however, insiders and fans alike continued to hope that the performance by Marion Jones, the American sprinter and long-jumper, at the Worlds in Seville, Spain, during the final week of August, might somehow redeem the sport. Because of her dazzling, multi-event talent and her not-inconsiderable charisma, Jones stands as track and field's surest bet for massive, money-minting sports celebrity. Expected to win as many as four golds at the event, she was also supposed to produce the kind of nationalist fervor that the U.S. Women's Soccer Team and Lance Armstrong had ignited earlier in the summer. Instead, Jones collapsed during the 200 meter event with agonizing back spasms. Writhing on the track, she offered an image not of triumph, but of the suffering that can underlie even the grandest athletics—an image at once haunting and sorrowful, but in no way uplifting.

In the end, however, running aficionados may still have reason to be optimistic, for regardless of the problems plaguing the 1999 season, the Sydney Olympics will almost certainly offer the sport an enormous shot in the arm. And indeed, the Worlds have already provided a preview of what to expect: Aired on tape by NBC over two weekends, they drew higher ratings than any track event since Atlanta, 1996. Of course, this type of boost occurs with every Olympics. What track needs now is to find a way of capturing the spotlight more often than once every four years.