USA Track and Field, the governing body for the sport in this country, has a page of shame on its website, listing athletes currently serving suspensions. If a recent propublica/BBC report is anywhere close to the truth, that list will be getting longer. The combined investigation alleges quite a bit of hanky-panky conducted at the behest of America’s leading distance coach, Alberto Salazar. In his quest to build Galen Rupp into a robo-runner, it appears that Salazar might have bent the rules beyond recognition. At the very least, Rupp will be racing under a cloud for quite some time and not just because he trains in Oregon.
It is true that the “performance enhancing drugs in sports” story does not ring the scandal bell quite the way it once did. Even more so when the discipline involved is endurance based. After all, Rupp shattering the American record in the 10,000 meter race does not carry quite the impact of Mark McGwire eclipsing the Mick’s 61 home runs. Indeed, my guess is despite the fact that Rupp is supposed to be the reincarnation of America’s most famous distance runner–he and Pre both hailed from and ran for Oregon, both seemed ready to take on the world in a discipline where we are traditionally weak–only the most knowledgeable sports fan can dredge up his name. Rupp’s relative anonymity tells the tale.
In approximately the last five years, the NFL has announced 118 suspensions for substance abuse violations. Sure, some of the guilty are two-time offenders, many are for marijuana or other recreational drug use, but 118? It is safe to say drug use in the NFL is rampant. And nobody cares. Tom Brady will serve a four-game suspension for cheating but when he reappears in Foxboro to face the Jets he will take the field to a raucous ovation. In truth, cheating does not matter in the NFL and in baseball we apparently confine our objections to drug use to hall-of-fame voting.
Track and Field draws significant attention only when the Olympics take over NBC’s airwaves. If the allegations against Rupp prove true, America will have been hit at both ends of the spectrum as its top sprinters, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, also have checkered drug histories. For a sport already at the margins of popularity and losing ground, the perception that these athletes owe their triumphs to chemicals rather than will and talent may be enough that we will tune out in record numbers.
Everyone understands that athletes will often push the chemical envelope. But there is a tipping point. Lance Armstrong’s boastful duplicity ruined cycling for most Americans; Alberto and Galen may have done the same for Track and Field.