Thursday, June 25, 2015

They All Cheat

I read the mind-numbing response by Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar to the scathing series of stories from the BBC and Pro-Publica which questions whether his group of elite distance runners use performance enhancing drugs.  Salazar mounts a decent defense, but it is full of holes and out right lies.  For me, as a fan of the sport, for the last 25 years I've operated under the assumption that they all cheat.  I firmly believe that in one way or another, the vast majority of elite track and field athletes cheat.

Salazar's reputation was pretty hazy even back in the 1980's.  My private coach, Tom Dowling, worked with elite athletes during that era.  Tom told of how Salazar was known for experimenting with a lotion horse trainers used to reduce inflammation in their thoroughbreds.  He was always looking for ways to gain an edge.

Still by and large I believe distance running was relatively clean through the 1980's but by 1988... the Olympics had become a showcase for doping.  Ben Johnson got caught.  Florence Griffith-Joyner did not, but anyone who had truly followed the sport knew that something about Flo-Jo was amiss.  Then came Ma's Army and the string of stunning world records set by Chinese women in 1993.  These ladies were doped to the gills.

Looking across the 1990's my suspicions only grew with the record setting by Morceli, El Guerrouj and Gebresallasie made me question everything.  The world records at 5000 and 10000 meters were further taken down to ridiculous times by Bekele and all I could do is shake my head.

What we really need to take away from the BBC/Pro-Publica stories isn't what may or may not be happening with NOP.  It's the fact that the BBC reporter showed how easy it is to micro-dose banned substance, reap the benefits of those drugs and still beat the drug tests.  That's the real story and that's the real dilemma.

WADA is helpless to stop doping.  The various governing bodies of the so-called Olympic sports that include track and field, cycling and swimming, need to take a very hard look at their drug rules.  My takeaway is that doping is here to stay and the cheats will always be a step ahead of the tests.  I hate to say drop the rules against doping but I see no reason to continue the charade.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


When I started my life as a runner, I drew inspiration from Jim Ryun.  It was easy.  He was a Kansan who went to high school in Wichita, a mere 60 miles from where I was growing up in Abilene.  As I began to read about Ryun's exploits, my eyes were opened to other distance running greats.  There were Olympic legends like Finland's Paavo Nurmi and Czechoslovakia's Emil Zatopek and the man with a multitude of world records, Ron Clarke.

The Australian legend died Tuesday at age 78.  He is in my estimation, the greatest distance runner who never won Olympic gold.  The best he ever managed was a bronze medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games in the 10000.  He was undone by American Billy Mills and Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi.

The following year Clarke went on a record setting spree, the likes the world has never seen.  During a 44 day tour of Europe he set 12 world records, nine in just 21 days.  The bulk of his records came at 5000 and 10000 meters.  He was the odds on favorite to win gold in 1968 except for the fact that the race was run in the high altitude of Mexico City.  Clarke ran courageously, collapsing in 6th place.  Doctors would later learn that the run had permanently damaged the great Aussie's heart.

The story that endears me to Clarke is one I first read about 30 years ago in Sports Illustrated.  Clarke made a pilgrimage to then communist controlled Czechoslovakia to meet Zatopek following the disastrous Mexico City games.  The meeting between the two great runners went splendidly.  As the two men parted company Zatopek handed Clarke a piece of tissue with something wrapped in it, saying he deserved this.

Later Clarke went into a restroom to unwrap the mystery object and found that Zatopek had given him his 1952 Olympic gold medal he had won at 10000 meters.  Clarked admitted that he wept.  Zatopek wanted to acknowledge how much Ron Clarke had changed the sport.

Ron Clarke's name belongs in the pantheon of distance greats like Nurmi, Zatopek, Haile Gebresalassie, Kenesia Bekele.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Prefontaine Classic

The day started as a gloomy, chilly with the threat of rain as I headed out the door of my Eugene hotel for a 5 mile run along the famous trails that run along the Willamette River.  As I enjoyed my morning run I spotted a few of the participants from the previous nights 10000 meter race and hoped this day would produce as many stellar performances.

We made our way over to Hayward Field, Fenway Park of American track and field.  The fans are great, the emotion they can lift from the competing athletes cannot be underestimated.  Those fans helped make for great performances that were standard fare for the meets namesake, the late Steve Prefontaine.

The field events began shortly after 12:15 p.m. and by then the clouds had given way to brilliant sunshine.  You knew it was going to be something special when in the warm up mile race, a gathering of "non-elites," if you will, took the track at 12:32 p.m.  Ben Blankenship rolled through a 3:55 mile dragging 8 other competitors under the magical 4 minute barrier with him.  Just to my left the women triple jumpers were going crazy, two bounding out to 49 feet, incredible world class jumping.

Across the infield, Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie was setting a meet mark in the pole vault scaling nearly 20 feet while taking a couple decent cracks at his own world record.  In front of me in the shot put circle American Joe Kovacs was dominating a who's who of the world's best shot putters hurling the 16 pound ball more than 72 feet.

Then the fireworks on the track got going.  English Gardner flew to a world's best 100 meter of 10.84 only to be bested by Shelly Frasier-Price a few minutes later flashed down the track in 10.82 to take down Gardner's mark.  The sprinting was otherworldly with Justin Gatlin clocking a world leading 19.68 in the 200 and Kirani James gliding around the oval in 43.95.

The distance fireworks were even brighter.  On the women's side American Ajee Wilson battled Kenyan Eunice Sum to the tape losing by .05 in an 1:57.82 800.  Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba ran an epic solo 5000 meters in the recording the 6th fastest time in history hitting the tape in 14:19.76.  World Champion Jenny Simpson rescued the American cause nearly breaking 4 minutes to win a deep women's 1500 that saw 18-year-old Alexa Efraimson take down Mary Cain's American Junior Record running 4:03.39.

The men's mile that followed was anti-climatic.  The elite field refused to follow the pacemakers instead gunning a final 800 in 1:51 in which Djibouti's Ayanleh Souleiman edged Matt Centrowitz with his 3:51.1. All told 13 men had broken 4 minutes in that race bringing the day's total to 21.  No other track meet can claim as many sub-4 minute milers as the Prefontaine Classic.

Just before 3 p.m. Pacific time I sat and wondered at the spectacle that I had witnessed over the last two hours.  I knew I had just seen the greatest track and field meet in my life.  And outside of the Olympics, which I only witnessed first hand in 1984, the stats backed my guts up.  The geeks who track the numbers say the two days of running, jumping and throwing were the greatest in history.  I was just lucky enough to be there and see it.