The challenge today, in modern global sports, is how to stand out among all of the opportunities in sports to grab the glboal sports dollar. From NASCAR to Formula One. from bike racing to surfing contests, from European football to rugby, from American football to golf, from walleye fishing to track and field, how does one stand out?
Track & Field is standing out now because of the hard line it is drawing about drug use. That should be both be applauded, but give one some cause for concern....
As the American baseball business starts to eat itself, track and field is getting a bit of a hard earned and deserved breather.
And then, we got the press release from USADA. I wrote about that earlier in the week.
Last October, Marion Jones spoke from the steps of a New York Courthouse. She was not running for political office. She did announce that she had indeed used "the clear", a drug used to cheat in sports. Jones also announced that she had lied about her drug use for nearly seven years, and she was taking this moment to apologize for her actions. Jones spoke with a tenure and a voice that suggested that this person was in much pain, and that she was almost responsible for her actions. Almost.
She followed that up with sending her five Olympic medals back to the USOC, as demanded by the esteemed organization. Those are great gestures, but, in my mind, until Marion Jones sits down, names names and tells all how she made such a disastrous series of decisions, (and so far I am just talking about picking the men in her life), to her drug use and decade of lying about aforementioned drug use, Marion will have gotten off easy.
Victor Conte, the former bassplayer for one of my favorite horn sections, a cult nutritionist, now a confirmed seller and developer of illicit sports drugs, wants to make a Faustian deal where he stays in the limelight and helps USADA and WADA, the national and global drug agencies, in their fight against drug cheats. Do I see
a reality show here!
Earlier, I compared this relationship to former Nazi scientist Werner von Braun helping the US after WW2 with missle development. Does the end justify the means? Apparently, in the US, with the likes of Guantanamo, and other detrius brought on by the War, the end does justify the means. Or, does it just bring us to the cheats' level? I am not so sure anymore.
Someone who saw the evil of war first hand, General George S. Patton, Jr., once said that war was the failure of civilization. He was right. War clouds the good and the evil, and it drains good men and women of life, and dreams, among other things. In the past century, approximately 110 million people were killed in major conflicts. You would have thought we would learn.
Sport in general, athletics in particular, mimics ancient acts of war. One would hope, after a few million years of bipedal evolution, that we would have figured out alternatives to ethnic cleansing and greed, but that does not seem to be the case. Sport
is supposed to be something to exalt, a topic to speak about at the local Starbucks' line or talk about while out on a Sunday run.
I do love this sport. I do not love the level of depravity that some have taken the sport to. There are limits of human performance. There are not, however, limits to the spirit of said humans and the various ways that they interpret competition. Nine fast guys line up in front of 100,000 fans, running their hearts out, with five sprinters within .2 of each other, is a great race. It is also great sports entertainment, and it does not matter whether it is 10.1 or 9.65! Watching thirteen guys break four minutes at the Prefontaine a few years ago blew my mind! I did not care how fast they ran under four minutes, it was just cool to see so many dedicating their lives to something so primitive, so unmodern, without ever having a chance to be on YouTube, or perhaps E news with Lindsay Lohan. The point of our sport is that it has no point. It is performance for performance sake! It is competition, whether it be the world record holder and a world champion, or four nine year old 4 x 100 meter teams at a junior meet.
What does matter is this. We need to be able to take our kids, our grandkids and say, see that sprinter? They have worked their butts off since they were in junior high. And, we continue, with good nutrition, good coaching, a good work ethic, talent and some luck, you could be there someday! What I do not want to say is the following: without a visit to see a former bassplayer who is sending some vile product that will make you run faster tomorrow but may make your right ear fall off in ten years is what you need to take to be on top. This is no longer sport, it is sport chemistry. And that it too much like work. Sport is supposed to be uncomplicated, and remind us of fun.
Think I am off my rocker more today that others? Consider for one moment the two hundred plus former East German athletes who have filed claims in German courts seeking damages to the effects that long term drug cheating did to their persons, from cancers to gender confusion to death.
The Greeks canceled the ancient Games due to cheating and unsportsmanlike conduct. A news show on ESPN called Micheal Vick's dog killing the sports story of the year. Wow, I thought sports stories had to do with performances, or competition. My mistake.
In Helsinki, I loved watching Justin Gatlin win. In Athens, I was so proud of his self control in the semi-finals. As my son, Adam and I sat in the stands with a group of coaches, we were enthralled by the Olympic ambience. The shaking of the stands by 80,000 Greeks before the final really woke us up! We were handicapping the field and I picked one through five, correctly, after watching them react to the crowd before the final. Gatlin was superb, he was focused and he ran well.
After his drug positive in 2006, I had to rethink all of his performances. The positive was not an isolated matter in my mind. How did other fans feel?
Now, the USADA is acknowledging that Justin put himself in harm's way to help the US government get some answers on drug cheating. Get the big guys. This is to be commended. USADA is cutting his ban to four years, and with some wiggle room, I believe, for his legal team to cut the ban to less, due to his earlier conviction on drugs used for attention deficit disorder.
Maybe I am wrong here, but the idea of USADA going after someone gives me the same worry as if I was being chased by the Don Adams' character in Get Smart (hey, if you are under 25, just google it). Good equipment, some cool special effects, but , where is the substance? If there was such a big investigation, then name some names, defame a few dirtbags. Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England was accused of saying that nothing says control like a head on a pike. If USADA wanted to scare the cheating out of most, they have come close with the Marion Jones extravaganza.
But, if they really, truly, want to make an impact, then they have to put Mr. Bonds up on national TV and let him apologize for ripping off baseball and its millions of fans. He should have to give up some rings and maybe a few dollars. In our love of all reality, USADA could have 700 plus fans throw baseballs at Bonds, one after the other. Now, I might not pay to watch NASCAR, but I would pay to watch that!
I do think that track and field has done an amazing job at catching cheats. But, we are so self critical that it is nearly self gratification, and as a sport, we eat our young. It makes the sport pretty darn hard to sell when every other word on the sport is so negative. It is not fair, and it is not honest. Every sport has it's issues. But be proud of your sport. Consider this, you could be writing about baseball!
So, I have digressed, sorry. Would our sport forgive Justin Gatlin? I am mixed here. In the US, especially, we try to take people who have done something stupid, who pay their dues and we give them a second chance.
Will the U.S. give Justin Gatlin another chance? Would they give Marion Jones another chance? Heck, if they are going to give Michael Vick another chance, my guess is yes.
Gatlin has to be smarter than Jones and Vick. He needs to hold a press conference, allow media to fire away, and have him answer why he did it, how he did it, why he was an idiot and ask for our forgiveness. It will be hard, it will be painful, but it will be honest. Americans love honesty. They smell the opposite miles away.
When Gatlin cheated, or when anyone cheats, they hurt the fans, the sport overall, and that little space in our depraved world where we still believe in superheroes. Justin Gatlin has fallen to Earth, and now, in his humanity, if he truly believes, he will make his family proud and earn back some of his fan's respect, and perhaps, regain some self respect by owning up to what he did wrong.
That is my prayer for Mr. Gatlin on this cold Friday night.
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