Saturday, July 20, 2013

Gay, Powell, and What It All Means

I'm as shocked and saddened as anybody about the positive doping tests by both Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell (as well as those of Jamaican female Olympic medalists Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson).  With their positives, the list of fastest sprinters of all-time just had two more asterisks attached to it.  And it once again brings up the same questions about Usain Bolt.  How can he be that much better than everybody else and not be on something?  It's a valid question.  Some in the track & field community have been suspect of Bolt for a while, and the latest news about Gay and Powell (two of his closest competitors) doesn't help his case. 

People like to talk about cycling as a tainted sport, but sprinting's recent history is just as murky.  Sprinters were among the main culprits when the BALCO scandal first broke in the early 2000s, but it looked like track & field had finally moved on from those dark days, due in large part to Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay, among others.  Now Gay is tainted, along with way too many of the sport's stars for things to be comfortable.  I just hope we're not being duped through another dark era.

Those involved in the track & field and anti-doping world point to these positive tests as a good thing.  It's proof that the system is working.  I don't disagree with that contention.  It's better to disqualify athletes right away and get repeat offenders out of the sport than deal with changing results years after the fact.  Adam Nelson won the gold medal in the shot put at the 2004 Olympics.  Only, he didn't find out (or get his medal) until last year!  Nelson originally finished second behind Ukraine's Yuriy Bilonog, whose positive result wasn't confirmed until eight years later.  So instead of having his Olympic moment, Nelson had to wait nearly a decade to get the medal that was rightfully his.

They've certainly gotten much more efficient with these tests, and we've even seen varying degrees of punishments based on the seriousness of the violation.  American 800-meter runner Maggie Vessey was given a public warning (a slap on the wrist) because a banned substance was in a prescription medication she was taking.  Reduced suspensions are also common if the positive test was deemed to be inadvertent and/or unintentional.  The standard suspension used to be two years, but that will be extended to four when the next edition of the World Anti-Doping Code comes out (so that athletes have to miss an Olympics), with a life ban for a second offense.

Some sprinters have proven that a doping suspension doesn't necessarily mean their career is over, either.  For every Marion Jones or Kelli White or Tim Montgomery, who disappeared after their positive tests because they we're competitive otherwise, there's a Justin Gatlin.  Gatlin won the Olympic 100 meters in Athens, then received a four-year doping suspension from 2006-10.  He came back to win the bronze medal in London, beat Bolt earlier this season, and is a favorite to win a medal at the World Championships next month.  Same with LaShawn Merritt, who finished second in the 400 at the 2011 World Championships weeks after returning from his own 21-month ban. 

While this whole situation is sad and ugly, I give Gay credit for being a man about it.  He came right out and admitted his guilt, didn't make any excuses, and voluntarily withdrew from the World Championships (where his showdown with Bolt was going to be one of the most anticipated events).  If and when his "B" sample comes back positive, I'm sure his cooperation is something that will be taken into consideration when it comes to doling out punishment.  Contrast that to Asafa Powell, who has taken the same "deny, deny, deny" approach as so many before him.  But a positive sample is a positive sample.

Maybe Lance Armstrong was right when he said he wouldn't have been able to win the Tour de France without doping.  Maybe the same thing can be applied to sprinting, too.  I hope that's not the case, but it brings us back to the question at hand: "How can Bolt be clean when it seems like nobody else is?"

Well, I counter with this.  Allyson Felix.  Sanya Richards-Ross.  Kirani James.  They've proven that you don't need to be on PEDs to be a world-class sprinter (God, I hope I'm right about all three of them). 

For me, that's really the saddest takeaway from the Gay/Powell situation.  Just when we thought we were past the point where everyone's results come into question, we're back to hoping athletes prove our faith in them is warranted while, at the same time, not being overly surprised if/when they let us down.  Tyson Gay let us down and he knows it.  His taking responsibility for his actions is the only "refreshing" thing about this entire ugly situation.  And who knows?  Maybe Tyson Gay will somehow help restore our faith in a sport that's suddenly, once again, dealing with a serious credibility issue.

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