Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why Runners Take Drugs, And Fail Doping Tests

Some friends who've got a better pulse on the track world than I do began telling me several weeks ago, after the Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin escapades, that more big names were going to fall. They evidently knew something. Marion Jones and LaTasha Jenkins have since failed doping tests, at least if we're to believe reports of their "A" sample results that have been widely circulated. I don't know if there are more to come. Several big names are in play, among the track gossip crowd, but who really knows?

I do know one thing, however. It would be wrong to assume that track is an unusually "dirty" sport, certainly not in the sense of betting and street drugs and broken arms and unsavory characters. The opposite is much more true. Track and road running are probably the most uplifting sports anyone can think of. Craig Masback and his friends aren't making this stuff up. It's the truth. Just consider all the youth events, and the charity fund raising, and the middle-agers fighting the $100 billion obesity epidemic, and the old farts who are absolutely astounding in their determination and achievements, and the unbelievable support for women on the playing field.

Track and field and running in general are the ultimate, mass participation, good-for-you and good-for-your-community sports.

So why do so many big-name track athletes apparently take drugs? And fail doping tests? That's simple. Because drugs work better for runners than they do for athletes in other sports. The payoff is direct and immediate.

Imagine for a moment the world's best table-tennis player. Now imagine that player on steroids. Is he any better? No way.

Or imagine Michelle Wie, the slender, long-hitting golf prodigy. Now imagine Wie on EPO. Is she any better? Not a chance. On steroids then? Would more testosterone help Wie or Tiger Woods hit the ball farther and straighter? You might be able to construct an argument for this one, but I don't think you'd gain many supporters. What Wie and Woods both have isn't something that would be improved by thicker muscle fibers or more red blood cells.

However, a sprinter with more powerful muscle fibers, courtesy of steroids, will almost certainly run faster. If you don't believe that, I give you Exhibit A: Ben Johnson, 1988. A distance runner with more red blood cells (thank you EPO), in balance with his total blood plasma, will almost certainly run faster for longer, which is what we distance runners breathe and sleep and train and eat to do.

Runners are pure physiology textbooks on legs. We don't swing bats or clubs, we don't throw or catch various spheres, and technique is essentially non-existent. Who doesn't know how to run? We learn it shortly after learning to toddle, right? (Funny aside: After Gerry Lindgren won the 1967 NCAA XC Championships in frigid Laramie, WY, I heard him explain to several reporters that his success was based on the fact that he was a left-footed runner. "I always lead with my left foot," Lindgren said. Let me tell you, the pencils were moving fast, the reporters' notebooks filling with this startling information.

Imagine a blind runner. Could he be the world record holder for 100 meters or the marathon? Physiologically, the answer is certainly yes, though certain practical issues would have to be overcome. Try to name another sport where a blind person could become the world's best. (I'm sure there are some that I'm not thinking of right now, but I bet there aren't many. Oh, sure, weight-lifting. Pure physiology. Pure steroid world.)

This isn't to make excuses for runners who take drugs. There are no acceptable excuses. But I would like people to understand that the seemingly large number of drug offenders among runners doesn't mean that running and track/field are dirty sports. They aren't; they're the exact opposite--fresh, open-to-all, extremely exciting and rewarding sports.

But they're also sports wherein, if you choose to take drugs, you'll likely improve. The payoff is more direct and more immediate than in other sports. For some, unfortunately, the temptation is therefore irresistible.


At 9:19 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

Well put. Likewise, the same payoff is direct with the cycling world as well. Very much enjoyed the read.

At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across this article doing a paper on runners and doping. As a distance runner and triathlete, I would have to disagree with what you said about technique. "...and technique is essentially non-existent." More so in long distance than in short distance is technique trully important. When technique worsens, the runners efficiancy falls, bringing fatigue sooner and slower times. The likely hood of injury also becomes a larger factor.

But I do most definatly understand what youre saying. On a very novice level technique is not key. The sport's simplicity is one of its beauties. Only when time and speed are desired does technique really need to be cared for.

At 9:41 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

thank you for the nice read. We have to blame the sponsors.

At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even beta blockers should not be used.


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