Running’s “Tour-de-France” Moment?


Pulling up on her laptop, Joni scanned the headlines and message board threads and asked the reasonable question, “Is Running about to have its “Tour-de-France” moment?”

I knew what she meant. Recent news for Athletics generally, and long-distance running in particular, has been pretty grim. A couple of weeks ago, a German documentary aired claiming that Russia has been running a state-sponsored doping program for many years. In the last week, Jon Drummond, the 2012 USA Olympic sprint coach, received an eight-year ban for providing banned substances to Tyson Gay. Gay himself was found to be in possession of HGH before he started working with Drummond. Meanwhile, the presumed World Marathon Majors champion Rita Jeptoo’s “B” sample tested positive. It’s an indication of the kind of week it was that I honestly can’t remember if there were other doping stories that I’m forgetting because they didn’t rise to the level of “bombshell.”

Maybe it’s misleading to talk about a “single moment” when the sport of Cycling — and the Tour, in particular — changed to address rampant drug use. In the early part of the last century, drug use at the Tour de France was acknowledged, indeed, many felt it was impossible to compete in such an arduous event without the help of artificial “strengtheners” that included nitroglycerine, strychnine, ether, and later amphetamines. Wikipedia tells me that all of these were allowed in the first 60 years of Le Tour.

There were many incidents that provoked concern about such artificial aids, but one of the defining “moments” for Cycling, and for Athletics, was the death during the 100k team time trial of Danish rider Knud Enemark Jensen at the 1960 Olympics. This led to protests and demands for testing. By the mid-sixties, the Tour de France had begun testing for amphetamine use.

But the Tour de France moments of recent memory would be the modern series of doping scandals beginning in the late 1990’s with the bust of the Festina team. Over the next decade more and more high-profile riders (and teams) were caught, and it all led up to the unmasking in 2012 of inspiring cancer survivor and doper extraordinaire Lance Armstrong. At that point, the entire sport seemed to be in disgrace and attempted to press the reset button. Whether that has truly happened or not, I don’t know. But Tour stages are now won with speeds that pale in comparison to past performances, and many people point to that as evidence that the sport is cleaner overall.

So is Track at that kind of crossroads?

It might seem so, and I suppose it could still BE so if suddenly we found out that two-thirds of the finalists at the Olympic and World Championship sprint events were dirty, or that there was systematic EPO use among the top marathoners. But as it stands today, systematic doping in Russia isn’t enough evidence for most people to doubt the entire sport, and so the finger is off the reset button — for now.

I do wonder whether 2014’s doping news will set in motion certain changes in the running world. For example, I think Jeptoo’s positive test might lead sponsors to reconsider how much they are paying to support some of the major marathons. If sponsors calculate that there is greater risk of having winners test positive, then they might factor in that risk when deciding how much the sponsorship is worth to them. I wonder that might lead to downward pressure on prize money for those events.

But when I try to conjure up a doping doomsday scenario for Track and Road Racing, it just doesn’t seem very likely. Maybe I’m naive, but unlike Cycling in the 1990s (and earlier) or Baseball in the steroid era, I don’t think Track is experiencing such widespread doping that all of the podium finishers will be painted with the same brush. I don’t think Russia is the Athletics equivalent of Festina, and I’d like to think that in Athletics, unlike in the Tour during the Armstrong years, it’s not yet at the point of  No Dope, No Hope.

Will there still be cheaters, and will they include a few athletes who were our heroes? Surely, the answer will be yes. But the ongoing attention that Athletics has given to testing and the relatively aggressive enforcement of sanctions against recent drug cheats (maybe not as aggressive as some would hope, but aggressive relative to most other sports) leads me to believe that Track and Field will muddle on, and that this week’s news is not the tremor that predicts the big earthquake around the corner.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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