By: Erin Strout
I was plodding along a long dirt road popular with the running set on Sunday in Flagstaff, Arizona. Coming up behind me on A1 Mountain was a herd of about 20 world and national-class athletes, also out on their weekly long run ritual. Like any Sunday morning in this town, you don’t have to look far or long to find dozens of talented people working hard toward lofty, Olympic-sized goals.
Part of the charm of being a recreational runner living in a world-renowned, high altitude oasis is that you share training ground, coffee joints, grocery stores, movie nights, and backyard barbeques with many of the best distance runners in on earth. I’ve been here long enough to observe two Olympic cycles through multiple lenses—as a neighbor, friend, and a journalist. It’s afforded me the time and exposure to see how the various combinations of resources, work ethic, raw talent, psychology, integrity, and values can conspire to catapult an individual to the highest levels of success in road running and track and field. Or not.
It’s these scenes from home that momentarily flash through my mind when I’m in Rio or Boston or New York or Eugene, watching these runners pour out those thousands of hours of preparation into a solitary race that could be defining moment of their careers. A part of me recalls the highs and lows, the turning points and dark days I witnessed when few others were observing. Their triumphs and heartbreaks often come with an extra layer of context and, in some cases, empathy.
What I always wish for them—and for all athletes who compete professionally—is, of course, a level playing field. The purity of the sport is what draws us in, makes us fans, and allows us to fully appreciate and respect the medals, records, and championships. But the truth is, at this point, nobody is exempt from suspicion. Every race is viewed through varying degrees of doubt.
As all the key players acknowledge, doping is a complex issue with layers upon layers of challenges to address. What provokes one athlete to use performance-enhancing drugs is not what pushes the next one to a decision cheat. The motives of an American runner are vastly different than those driving a Kenyan or a Jamaican. While basic testing systems and procedures need improvement and consistency in many nations, governing bodies also need to address the doctors, coaches, and agents capitalizing on athletes in third-world countries who are desperate to pull themselves and their families out of poverty.
It’s easy to see a convicted doper as merely a fraud and a thief—and, to be sure, many of them are just that. But for some the decision to take performance-enhancing drugs isn’t a choice between succeeding at running or falling back on law school if it doesn’t work out. It’s a choice between earning prize money or watching a child suffer diarrheal disease because the family doesn’t have clean water or access to medical care. Unscrupulous people behind the scenes, capitalizing on that desperation, provide the drugs, resources, and finances that are a pathway to life-changing success. They’re a part of the problem—and they shouldn’t be let off the hook, in East Africa or anywhere else.
The coaches, medical professionals, therapists, training partners, sponsors, and agents whom athletes choose to surround themselves with are career defining. Associations say more about a performance than they ever have before. No medal is won or record set without scrutiny of a runner’s support team. In some corners of the world the choices are more plentiful and easier to make than in others—it’s time for everybody involved in the highest levels of the sport to be held accountable for the roles they play in performance.
Initiatives like the Clean Sport Collective can become great resources not only to find like-minded professionals and athletes, but also by providing a space for conversation and insight into the circumstances surrounding the doping problem around the world. Understanding how an athlete arrived at the decision to cheat—and who, if anybody, was involved in that choice—could lead to a stronger foundation on which to base policies and consequences.
Back here in Flagstaff, as I’m left in the dust by those Olympians and national champions, I’m given this special perspective on the lifestyles of the fast and (sometimes) famous. While I never know the entire story or even see the whole picture, I see enough to have a good understanding of what it takes to reach those lofty goals and who is there to provide the necessary support. Nobody does it on his or her own—not here, not anywhere. Clean sport is indeed a collective effort.