The Fog of War

War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” – Von Clausewitz, On War

If the IAAF, WADA, and national organizations are now fighting a war on drugs — that is, a war on performance-enhancing drugs — I fear that, like actual wars, it is doomed to be wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. In other words, if we are hoping for bright lines and easily identified good guys and bad guys, we are likely to find our hopes repeatedly frustrated. As much as we’d like summary judgments, it’s going to be complicated and uncomfortable to separate the innocent from the guilty.

I’m always hesitant to write about PEDs, because frankly, I think it’s really easy to write crap about the subject, for several reasons.

First, as an ordinary fan of athletics, I don’t bring any special knowledge to the table. I can’t draw on personal experiences at the Oregon Project (or any other professional training group) to know or sense what’s going on there. I’m not a professional athlete, nor have I ever spent time among them, so I haven’t a clue how they live their day-to-day lives. How can I possibly contribute anything other than shrill insults from the distant cheap seats?

Second, I lack the specific scientific knowledge that might help me sort out claims and counter-claims about various performance aids.

(This lack of knowledge isn’t for lack of interest. A couple of weeks ago, I spent way more time than I’d like to admit reading about Meldonium. After hours of research, I’m still not sure whether there is any scientific evidence that it actually improves performance, and if so, how. The problem is, I’m not a biochemist, and I’m not competent to interpret the studies. All I can say is that it seems to have become very popular among athletes, and that WADA was alarmed enough about this that they banned it as of January 2016. So what used to be questionable but allowed, is now no longer allowed. I’m guessing the bad guys (Aregawi, Sharapova, and others) wouldn’t have been outed if they had just had the sense to stop using the stuff when Meldonium first went on the watch list, instead of continuing until time ran out on them.)

Third, any suggestion that there are gray areas on PED use and enforcement invites the accusation that one isn’t sufficiently moral about the issue. I understand the idea that rules are rules, and that breaking the rules is not OK. But it disturbs me that the set of rules around PEDs — like ANY set of rules around a complex set of behaviors — doesn’t perfectly define moral and immoral behavior. It’s too easy to think of behaviors that fall in a gray area. For instance, if you discovered a hitherto unknown performance-enhancing substance, would it be OK to take it until such time as it was widely noticed and banned? What about ingesting something that you THINK enhances performance, but is only a placebo? Some people (including the chemist who invented it) speculate that the performance-enhancing properties of Meldonium are due to the placebo effect. And what about substances that are proven to be performance-enhancing, but are perfectly legal? Answer after you finish drinking that espresso.

As a fan of track and field, I just hate having to wonder who’s clean and who’s dirty. It absolutely spoils my enjoyment of a great performance to harbor the suspicion that the performance was drug-aided. But who will be able to watch the upcoming World Indoor Championships without wondering?

I wonder how it has come to this. I suspect that the way that money flows through the sport now has ratcheted up the incentives to find every possible edge. A coach like Alberto Salazar basically advertises that he does this, but of course claims that he has scrupulously avoided crossing the line from legal to illegal. I don’t think one has to believe or disbelieve Salazar to recognize that it’s possible to follow the letter of the law and still push the limits of what many people would consider acceptable.

Our ambivalence shows up all over the place, including in popular culture. Does anyone remember the movie Space Jam? After the first half of an apocalyptical basketball game between the Michael Jordan-led ‘Toon squad and the Monstars, Jordan offers his team a water bottle with an elixir that he says will help their game. What!? Of course, it turns out that the secret stuff is ordinary water, but thanks to their belief in its powers, the ‘Toons start the second half playing like all-stars.

 

I can think of other examples of behavior that seems sketchy, somehow. I knew a high school coach who gave his middle distance runners bicarbonate of soda before races, supposedly to help them resist lactic acid build-up. Until I discouraged the practice, I saw my own high school kids sucking down caffeinated GU before a race — a practice perfectly legal but optically disturbing. And what about kids (or adults) who take Ritalin, Adderall, asthma medication? What about anti-anxiety drugs? What about blood thinners?

Some will say that I’m needlessly complicating things. Legal things are legal, and illegal things are illegal, and that’s all we need to know. But I don’t see it that way. I really struggle to figure out who to root for, and for that I need context — the intent of the athlete, the frequency of use, the back story. Personally, I am most appalled by systematic state-sponsored doping, and am more ambivalent about an individual athlete being busted for taking something for his ADD, but maybe that’s just me.

I actually envy people who see bright lines, and find it easy to take sides. As for me, I’m still seeking that “sensitive and discriminating judgement,” and despairing that I haven’t developed the skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.

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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2 Responses to The Fog of War

  1. Sports are big business and doping is big business in sports and there is big money in both. When you add money into the equation and the ability to change an athlete’s economic status, whether they are from the mountains in Africa, the Appalachian Mountains or even the “burb” in America, athletes, coaches have, are and will walk up to the line and when they calculate (or sometimes make a mistake) the odds are in their favor cross it to cash in.

    Athletics have never been totally clean and athletes historically have and will look for that little edge that will get them to their goals, whether it be short-sighted training methods, questionable ethics, dietary regimens, a plant, pill or injections (in today’s world), even if using those methods might not be in their long-term best interests. So athletes today are not all that different than athletes a 1,000 years ago were, other than the science we have today is much more – shall we say advanced. They use their celebrity and abilities in their chosen sport to make a better life for themselves and those who are close to them and take terrible chances sometimes to get there.

    Also, at closer to 60, if a drug came along that would allow me to compete with those 20 year olds, would I be tempted if the side affects were within my personal comfort zone and worth being able to compete at a much higher level than I do now, even if they were banned I don’t know.

    I really don’t.

    After all, I have never been tested and probably never will be tested for PED use (I am not that good) and that is the case for the majority of recreational athletes.

    It isn’t wouldn’t be about economic impact for me. It would be more about hubris and still wanting to be “competitive”, maybe that is part of the problem for real athletes who are nearing the end of their careers and see an opportunity to extend their moment in the sun for a bit longer.

    I do not condone the use of PED’s in sports and don’t use much more than Vitamin D and coffee myself (which is a PED). I have never knowingly used banned PED’s before (with some supplements you don’t know what you are getting and back in the 80’s many of us used ephedra teas, and GNC supplements) to improve myself as an athlete.

    However, to be honest…I will never say never, especially if a drug came out that would improve my quality of life as an old fart, outside of my athletic life, which in turn would improve my abilities as an athlete.

    Quite a conundrum and one that I have a feeling more than a few aging warriors are doing as we write this.

    Is the PED issue just one of elite athletes or how much does it flow down to the recreational athlete who does well locally and isn’t tested?

    I wonder?

  2. Tyler says:

    I believe that doping is inherently a problem of incentives. Especially in distance running where there’s an enormous parity between the winner and losers, doping can make a difference for many between making a living and not.

    The problem is that – while there are enormous positive incentives – for most, the negative incentives are nowhere near strong enough. If you don’t have an ethical boundary line that keeps you from breaking the rules (which, I hope, maybe naively, is enough to keep most – myself included – on the “fair game” side) what are the incentives not to dope? There is a risk of drug testing and the punishment that comes with a positive test, but I don’t think that’s anywhere near a strong enough disincentive to keep athletes from doping.

    e.g. – I am currently at a fairly large, competitive regional marathon/half-marathon/8km waiting to compete. The race features a strong invited field of athletes and provides thousands of dollars in prize money in addition to travel stipends and lodging for elites. But does this event drug test even its winners? Not that I know of. I won’t names, but I felt a pang of disappointment as I looked at the results from yesterday’s 8km run and saw two athletes in the Top 5 (earning several thousand dollars) from a training group which is widely known in the (sub)-elite US road racing circuit for having a disproportionate number of doping positives over the years. (http://espn.go.com/blog/endurance/post/_/id/934/smaller-marathons-targets-of-drug-cheats) I’ve been beaten by runners from this group multiple times, and each time I wish that the race would drug test.

    What’s the solution? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s enough to rely on the athletes’ moral compasses (in fact, I know it’s not because of the doping positives that come out every week – or you can just look at the London ’12 women’s 1500m final). Do we make a stronger incentive not to dope (i.e. lifetime bans or criminalizing doping)? I do think that would have an impact but it still wouldn’t solve the problem.

    As someone who is affected by doped athletes (i.e. having had prize money stolen by doped athletes), I have both an academic and pragmatic interest in solving this issue. But I haven’t figured out a solution yet.

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