Every four years, the Olympic Games roll around and every four years, for the last few days leading into the opening ceremonies, everything good about sport and high performance is buried under the bedlam of everything bad. I’m not sure it’s getting worse, but with the internet and sheer numbers of ways that people can electronically transmit news and images, it can appear that way. In recent history only, the transportation woes of Sydney 2000 (remember the stories of bus drivers from the outback getting lost in the city!), were eclipsed by the crazy overspending of Athens 2004, where organizers spent 11 Billion dollars, going over of the budget by 97%! (And we all know what happened to Greece as far as economies go and the expensive and highly specific venues now lie empty and sprouting grass into the hot Athenian sun).
We move to 2008 and Beijing, an Olympics which was by all accounts both a human rights disaster (1.5 million people displaced to build venues) and was another opulent display of controversy and excess. The run up to London 2012 was a pretty smooth one, with the British (naturally) being able to stay on top of controversy and presenting a smooth and polished games to the world, with their usual rapier wit and class. A quick internet search, and combing my memory bank—which I know are incredibly accurate ways in which to access information—turned up nothing on London 2012. No garbage problems or human suffering, just some ticket sales and accommodations problems (Note, that all the other controversies, like the ridiculous badminton match fixing, were a part of the actual Games, which I won’t address here).
And that brings us to Rio 2016. The smorgasbord of things going wrong in that country is a press circus. Outside of the usual predictable economic mess, which has been made worse by corruption and government scandal, athletes will also have to deal with the Zika virus, terrible pollution and a poorly constructed athlete’s villages. Images of the sewage in the waterways and on the beaches, makes most of us cringe at the thought of people actually swimming through such a cesspool of bacteria.
I’m sure anyone reading this is waiting for me to mention the D word. Yes folks, throughout it all, the exhausting race between the cheaters and the anti-doping agencies has continued pretty much unabated. Sydney 2000 was actually a huge mess of performance enhancing drug cheating, as is just about every Olympics in modern history. Canadians won’t ever forget Ben Johnson. (In case you did, that was Seoul 1988, the year our beefy Canadian sprinter won the Gold in the 100m only to test positive and be vilified 3 days later. A scandal which was later known as ‘He was the one who got caught.)
In the lead up to Rio, the whole Russian Track and Field team was almost (but not quite) banned from even competing at the games, based on empirical evidence that huge numbers of the team have been doping. This is huge. Our Canadian athletes are actually going to line up on the track beside people who have definitely and certifiably been CHEATING! Hilary Stellingwerff, a Canadian 1500m runner going to Rio, talks about it here. Think for a moment how that must feel!
Throughout my career, I personally and thoughtfully dealt with drugs in sport by lumping all cheaters into one category: THEM.
CHEATERS, THEM, or THOSE PEOPLE: Which means loosely, “Those OTHER people with no sense of fair play, integrity or morality, those people with dark greedy hearts who will do anything for fame and money, and who will then have to live with darkened shadowy hearts for the rest of their miserable lives, knowing that they didn’t come into success fairly, therefore the Law of Karma will prevail. Oh, and they will also have irreversible health problems as a result of their cheating, which one day they will regret, therefore the Law of Karma will prevail.”
This may seem like a childish or immature, or naïve way of looking at drugs in sport, but when I felt powerless to change others and their habits, and I saw people continue to compete even after they tested positive, I needed to preserve my own reason to compete, and became pretty strong in my resolve as to why I would continue to train and compete in a tainted world. I didn’t want to be bitter, jaded or cynical as that would have given the cheaters power. I could have become outspoken, I could have made it political and taken a stand but I never really wanted to give the cheaters any airtime either. Instead I stood on the starting line and looked at the cheaters and just said silently to myself, “You are OTHER. I am competing with you but I am not in a race against you. Your path doesn’t count to me.”
I strengthened my commitment to continue to compete to the best of my ability. Another distinction between cheaters and clean athletes is more subtle. Cheaters make a decision. They decide to use performance enhancing drugs. The reason doesn’t matter, but the decision does, and they cross the line. True clean athletes don’t ever consider a decision. There is never a question of using. They are ‘clean’, not in opposition to ‘cheaters’ but because this is who they are. I feel this is an important statement. All sports would be clean and fair if people didn’t decide to cheat. It’s only when faced with a world tainted by cheaters that a ‘clean’ athlete consciously decides to train clean, to race clean, and to avoid drugs at all costs. (I never even use cold medicine until well into 2010 a good 4 years after I retired. With 2 small children and a whopping head cold, I finally took a Benadryl, to great relief I might add.).
I approached every pro race, and every world championships knowing I was on the line with us (the clean ones) and THEM (the cheaters). For me there were two races going on, the clean race and the dirty race. The cheaters didn’t always win either. Sometimes they didn’t show up at the last minute, knowing that the urine test would produce a positive result, or they would fail anyway, in the conditions, or mentally, or just have an off day.
I can’t say with any certainty, how much cheaters cost me in my career. They certainly cost me a chance at competing at the 2004 Olympic Games, as the COC standards were reduced that year drastically, leaving many distance runners at home. Including Bruce Deacon, a marathoner whose story is almost heart breaking to read. If you have the time, Alex Hutchinson wrote well about 'High Standards" in Canadian Running Magazine. These high standards were based off the ridiculously fast times of the top 12 times in the world, some of which were drug induced. As far as how cheaters affected my personal earnings and podium finishes, it would be purely speculative, as I have no evidence. And pointing fingers without evidence is just bitterness. Avoiding the truth is denial. But if you take opportunities lost to cheaters, you have to account for not only the actual race earnings, but the spin off increase in career credibility that those podiums account for, and then formulate some set of algorithms for what that would mean in future earnings from endorsements and prize money. It’s mind boggling, and honestly, apart from writing it here, I don’t give it much thought because it’s what ‘might have been’, not ‘what is.’
And I prefer to live my life as what IS. I lived my career that way, and I will live my life that way. I can’t control the cheaters, but I can certainly control myself. I can control my dreams, my thoughts, my actions and my words. I never wanted to give power to the negative, and wanted to focus on the positive. I also want to live my life with integrity. I retired knowing I gave it my best and fair shot. I have a healthy body and a pure heart.
Experience tells me that on Friday, the Opening Ceremonies to Rio 2016, will be a fantastic show. We will get to watch Team Canada march into the stadium and our hearts with swell with a collective National pride. And over the next fourteen days, many people will watch and cheer for Canadian Olympians with joy, as the story of most Olympians is a dream we can all love and relate to: the inspiring path of a young person with a dream, and the single minded devotion and persistence and self-belief to pull it off. The pursuit of excellence and willingness to suffer for it, is a very profound message of sport. I feel for the athletes who have to knowingly compete against those who are cheating and who won’t get caught. I hope they can know in their hearts that they are doing the right thing, for now and for the future of sport. No matter how much technology and internet support we have, or how advanced the drugs are, nor how awesome your Instagram account is, fair play, sheer human effort and a pure heart is at the root of all that is good about sport.
Lucy Smith August 2016
Writing the Running Life
For 30 years I pursued a high performance career and traveled the world. This blog melds this experience with my coaching and passion to support excellence in others.