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Integrity in the Sport of Running

01/31/2017
By:  Mitchell Garner, RRCA President and Ann Arbor Track Club President

"I would prefer even to fail with honor than to win by cheating."  
Sophocles, ancient Greek playwright

For many years, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (“PEDs”) has been track and field’s dark presence, hanging over the sport like a bilious black cloud.  Many of us can remember the PED scandal involving Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, now serving a lifetime ban from athletics for using PEDs, at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea.  In 2007, American track star and Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones pleaded guilty to lying to a federal investigator about taking PEDs.  Speaking candidly following her court hearing, she said, “It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you I have betrayed your trust.” 

Cheating Allegations at Mid-Level Races

On June 5, 2016, shortly after the last runner crossed the finish line at the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run (“DXA2”), a mid-level race with about 5,000 runners hosted by the Ann Arbor Track Club (“AATC”), Race Director Doug Goodhue began receiving communications from knowledgeable individuals in the sport of running alleging that certain open runners who had won prize money for finishing first ($1,000), second ($500), or third ($250) in the half-marathon were members of a running group that had a reputation in the running world for the promotion and use of PEDs.  These allegations followed an Associated Press (“AP”) report that Larisa Mikhaylova, a former Russian athlete, was managing a group of runners, including those who had failed multiple drug tests, from a home in Hebron, Kentucky.  According to the AP report, Mikhaylova’s runners would enter races across the East Coast and Midwest that were often too small to afford drug testing but still offered prize money.  Confident that they were not going to be drug-tested, her runners were able to win prize money at these mid-level races with impunity, often going undetected until well after they had left the finish line and pocketed their race winnings.

The AATC took the allegations against the DXA2 prize winners seriously and launched an investigation.  As Race Director Goodhue later stated, “We needed to take a stand.”  The investigation included discussions with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (“USADA”) and a review of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (“WADA”) list of individuals who have either been suspended or been banned from the sport of athletics, which includes the sport of running, for doping violations.  When I checked this list, I was astounded at the number of athletes—over 900, and most of them from countries other than the United States—who are on the list.

Ann Arbor Track Club’s Response

Responding to these allegations, the AATC’s Board of Directors, at its regularly scheduled meeting on July 11, 2016, adopted an anti-doping policy for AATC-hosted races.  The policy bars any athlete who has ever served a suspension or ban for PED usage from receiving prize money.  Less than a month later, at its August meeting, the Board of Directors adopted an elite athlete attestation requirement regarding anti-doping compliance.  The attestation requires an athlete to affirm, under penalty of perjury, with a notarized signature, that he or she is in compliance with anti-doping policies promulgated by the United States Association of Track and Field and USADA and is not currently serving, nor has ever served, a suspension or ban issued by USADA or WADA for use of a banned substance.  The attestation also requires the athlete to affirm that he or she has no association with coaches or agents whose athletes have served such a suspension or ban.

Both the policy and the attestation are based on an anti-doping policy that was implemented by the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 2015.  To the best of my knowledge, the AATC is among the first running clubs, if not the first, in the United States to have an anti-doping policy and condition prize money on the completion of an elite athlete attestation form.

On October 3, 2016, Runner’s World ran a story about the AATC’s response to the doping allegations against the DXA2 runners who had qualified for prize money.  As reported, the AATC, upon the completion of its investigation, found no evidence of wrongdoing among the athletes, and no proof that they were connected to coaches or agents associated with doping.  Based on this finding, in September the AATC issued checks to the prize-winning athletes, all of whom had completed and returned their athlete attestations, for prize money totaling $4,500.

Pervasiveness of Performance-Enhancing Drug Usage

At this point, I am satisfied that the AATC has done its duty and verified, to a reasonable (though not absolute) degree of certainty, that the athletes in question were clear of PED usage when they ran the DXA2 half-marathon and thus were not disqualified from receiving their prize money.  However, I remain deeply troubled by the pervasiveness of PED usage by elite athletes in some countries.  Russia is Exhibit A.  In May, the CBS show “60 Minutes” ran a story about Vitaly and Yulia Stepanov, a married Russian couple who blew the whistle on the doping-related corruption within the Russian Athletics Association and Russia’s central government.  Yulia, an 800-meters specialist on Russia’s track and field team, admitted to taking anabolic steroids for five years in accordance with her coaches’ directives until she was injured just before the 2012 London Olympics.  Her coaches rationalized the cheating on the ground that all the other Russian athletes were doing it and to keep up with the others, she too needed to take PEDs.  No thought was given to the dangers that the PEDs might pose to her health.

Yulia decided to go public with her story after she lost the protection of Russia’s doping program and faced a two-year ban for a positive test.  Eventually, after a thorough investigation, the International Association of Athletics banned the Russian track and field team from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the ban was later upheld by the International Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Though viewed as draconian by some, the ban of the entire Russian team was celebrated by clean athletes around the world as a vindication of integrity in sports and a condemnation of Russia’s culture of corruption.  Clean athletes hate cheaters.

Clean Competition Movement

Like a rolling river, the movement for clean competition in the sport of running is gaining momentum at all levels of our sport.  On October 16, 2016, the New York Road Runners (“NYRR”), one of the nation’s largest road racing organizations, announced that it was expanding its testing for PEDs to include the top runners in its local races, not just those in its top-tier events.  NYRR currently spends $100,000 a year for USADA to test the professional runners in its top-tier races.  Implementation of the expanded testing program will cost NYRR another $100,000 or so in the first year to pay USADA to test the top local-race runners.  Travis T. Tygart, USADA’s chief executive, applauded NYRR’s initiative and expressed the hope that more sports organizations might follow NYRR’s lead.

Clean competition is integral to the sport of running.  I strongly encourage all running clubs that are members of the Road Runners Club of America (“RRCA”) to take a stand for integrity in our sport by—

  • adopting an anti-doping policy, and
  • requiring the prize winners at their local races to complete an elite athlete attestation in order to receive prize money.

The RRCA has resources on its website to help clubs do this.  For starters, go to: www.rrca.org/resources/event-directors/fair-competition-policies

Anathema of Cheating to Fair Play in Sports

I find cheating in the sport of running, whether it involves using PEDs, cutting a course, lying about one’s age, or physically interfering with another runner to gain an unfair advantage, abhorrent.  The concept of fair play is fundamental to the spirit of sport, and the use of PEDs sullies, like a monstrous black stain on a spotless white cloth, the purity of athletic competition.  In the end, cheating is a betrayal of the sacred trust among athletes, and the cheater is cheating himself or herself as much as his or her competitors.  Noble athletes take singular joy in giving their greatest effort, honestly achieved, and congratulating their fellow competitors—win, lose, or draw—when the competition is done.  The winner of any race should be the athlete who has persevered and trained hard, without taking PEDs, and has performed better than all the other runners on race day, not the athlete who has taken PEDs during the training period leading up to the race and “wins” on account of doping.

Sophocles was right.  The honor of failing without cheating always surpasses the false glory of winning by cheating.  Having lost many more races than I ever won during my lifetime, I am proud to say that I have failed honorably and would not have it any other way.

  • marathon
  • running
  • doping
  • olympics

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