By Jonathan Beverly
When it comes to stopping the use of illegal drugs on the street, we focus on multiple avenues of reducing supply and demand, not only on punishment of the offenders. When it comes to stopping performance enhancing drugs in sport, it makes sense to consider all sources of the demand.
Where does the demand for performance enhancing drugs come from? I believe at its source is a culture that values celebrity above all else, even character. A culture where 2nd is the first loser and rewards are disproportionately heaped on the top few. In the context of this culture, I believe the first pushers toward being a drug cheat are parents and kids’ sport coaches.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that parents and coaches give their kids EPO or steroids. But what I see is a culture that praises and rewards results over effort and talent over progress. I see kids who, from their earliest sport experiences, learn that what is most important is how they place, how they compare: Can they be better than their classmates? Can they beat the town rivals? Can they make it to state? Can they win a scholarship?
If they aren’t good enough to have external success, they’ll either drop out or get relegated to the second-tier where doing your best is politely applauded. In an interesting turn of events, those who don’t have initial success but improve are more likely to continue on in the sport later in life, I discovered while working on a book about lifetime competitors. And they have little danger in ever being tempted by performance-enhancing drugs.
The danger in this culture isn’t for those who have to struggle, it begins as soon as a young runner shows some promise. From the first time they win an event in a junior high meet, or worse, set a record, they began to be told that they are a good runner. Note, they aren’t told that they run well; they are not applauded for what they do, but who they are. They are told they have talent, a gift.
As psychologist Carol Dweck explains in her insightful book, Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, this praise puts them in danger of developing a fixed mindset that sees success as a product only of inherent talent, not something that comes from effort and growth. As such, winning becomes not only a goal but an expectation. Failure does not provide incentive to work harder but calls into question whether or not they are as talented as they thought. People who believe in talent think that those who lose are losers—so they have to win, at any cost.
Linked to this affirmation of talent is the pressure of the future. From that first junior high race, coaches start counting state championships and parents start tabulating the runner’s future scholarships. Legendary educator Haim Ginott called this type of talk “futurizing,” and warned against it. “Futurizing breeds stress and fear,” Ginott wrote in Between Parent and Teenager. Not only does the runner have to win to prove to him or herself that she is special, but now has to live up to an idealized potential.
The addition of money pours gasoline on this fire. The potential of a college scholarships and, dare-we-hope, a professional career in the sport, enhances the need to win, even if it pushes a child to the point that they no longer enjoy the sport they were born to do. Once in college, or beyond, runners now have economic pressure to win added to the emotional identity pressures of having to prove their talent and live up to expectations.
At the professional level, a tiny few get fame and fortune, while it has been estimated that many of those ranked in the top 10 in their event in the U.S. make less than $15K annually. In a typical marathon prize structure, second place gets roughly half what the winner takes home; 7th or 8th might win enough to pay for travel expenses and a celebratory dinner. The Abbott World Marathon Majors awards $500,000 every year to the series winner, and nothing to anyone else. Can you imagine this kind of division of rewards in your workplace or a structure that would produce a greater incentive to push the limits of what is fair or legal?
In a context where success is measured economically and so few survive, it is necessary to tread shady waters to compete, and doing so, without stepping too far, makes you smart. In what world, however, does pushing right to the edge of legal makes you a hero, while stepping across the edge makes you morally bankrupt, a cheat? A world that has lost the plot, that has forgotten why athletics are worthwhile for humans to participate in and why athletes inspire.
Take the current push for a sub-2 hour marathon. If the runners in Nike’s Breaking2 project do run under 2 hours, it will inspire only if they have to struggle in training and the race, if the human spirit overcomes adversity and they transcend their previous limits—not because they had special shoes, perfectly controlled conditions and every possible aid. The promise of sport is that each of us could get to the top if we work hard enough. That is an illusion, as most of us don’t have the genetic starting point, but we do have the promise that we could improve from our starting point to a similarly higher level. Adding the need to have all of these external resources to truly succeed removes even that hope, and makes us spectators. We might as well watch car racing.
I love to watch runners like Eliud Kipchoge who do this thing we do better than anyone, but I appreciate him more knowing that he honed that skill growing up in Kenya running 10 miles a day for transportation, rather than if he had been groomed to be a champion in a petri dish from youth. On a much smaller level, I’m more inspired by the girl who improves her 5K time by four minutes over the course of four years in cross-country than the one who shows up and, without summer training, can place in front of her on the team. Or the boy who works his way from 31st at state his freshman year to winning it his senior year, than one who finishes in the teens his first year and does only enough to stay there for four years.
This is where, I believe, we can start to counteract this cultural perversion of the sport. Let’s celebrate effort and growth as much as we do talent and external success. To celebrate success without context leads easily to a world where any means to get that success is acceptable.
This doesn’t mean giving up on excellence, quite the contrary. As a coach, or parent, I can encourage the girl who shows up and can already run fast to set higher goals and to work to achieve them, not simply applaud her for being born faster then her peers. I can also distinguish between effort on any given day—which is good, but limited—and effort applied over time that leads to growth. I can work to not show disappointment at hard-fought losses but excitement at what they can teach and inspire, and can give honest appreciation, not pity applause, for every athlete’s personal march toward excellence.
I know this sounds out of touch with the world as it is. As parents and coaches we want our kids to have success—real success as honored and rewarded by the harsh world where the slower antelope gets eaten even if it tried really hard and got faster than it was last week. I too want real success and rewards for my kids. But if they get to the top, to a world where success has huge rewards and failure means anonymity and economic loss, I want them to know that their success has meaning only in the context of the path it took to get there, and going against their conscience isn’t worth the price for that success. I want them to be the kind of athlete that takes the Clean Sport pledge without hesitation.
In the movie Cool Runnings, Irv, the coach played by John Candy, said, “A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you're not enough without one, you'll never be enough with one.” I want my kids to be enough, with or without one. And I’d rather they be enough without a gold medal, or a state championship, or even a dual meet victory, than to have external success without gaining integrity. I believe that integrity starts in kindergarten, and starts with the example set by parents and coaches as we set the tone for what it important and why sport is valuable.
Jonathan Beverly is the former editor-in-chief of Running Times. He is the author of the books, "Your Best Stride” and "Run Strong, Stay Hungry: 9 Keys to staying in the race from runners who've gone the distance” both to come out in 2017. A competitive runner since 1977, he coached adult runners with the New York Road Runners in the 1990s and has coached junior high and high school cross country and track for the past decade.