What do Marion Jones (American Olympic track and field champion and disgraced drug-user) and Lance Armstrong (a once seven-time Tour de France winner and disgraced drug user) have in common? Neither of them ever failed a drug test.
As a life-long track fan (and former high school and college distance runner), I can vividly recall seeing Marion Jones perched in front of a microphone, defiantly lashing out at the media for even hinting that she was dirty. Looking back on it, her martyred performance that day was worthy of an Oscar. She wearily noted the countless times she had been tested and retested, and how every single test had come up negative.
Enough is enough, she pleaded. What do I have to do to prove my innocence? I sympathized with this woman. I believed her. I defended her. Then I saw the subsequent press conference where she broke down and cried, contritely admitting that she'd been as doped-up as a racehorse. She was forced to return all her Olympic medals.
On July 13, Tyson Gay, America's premiere 100-meter sprinter, admitted he had failed a drug test. What made the admission so heart-breaking was that Gay had more or less come to be regarded as the face of clean, drug-free competition. In fact, Gay was cleaner than clean; he was an anti-drug zealot. Because he deplored what performance-enhancing drugs had done to the sport's credibility, he'd become something of an anti-drug crusader. And then he himself admits to being juiced. A sad day for track and field.
Of course, Gay isn't the first track champion to be caught using drugs. The practice goes back decades, to even before Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter (a contemporary of Carl Lewis) who scandalously tested positive for steroids. There have been literally scores of world-class male and female track and field athletes -- Americans as well as international stars -- who've been found guilty of using illegal drugs.
The problem (one of them at least) with the newest generation of ultra-sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs is that they're all but impossible to detect. What makes them so difficult to identify is that the testers often have no idea what they're even looking for. The purveyors of these drugs are light-years ahead of the drug police. Anabolic steroids are yesterday's news. Even HGH (human growth hormones) have become passé.
Although the testing agencies are getting better at detecting this exotic stuff, they still lag far behind the purveyors and users. Jones and Armstrong were caught by old-fashioned detective work, the evidence from which was overwhelming. Just consider: If the evidence hadn't been so incriminating, neither of these world-class athletes, in the absence of a single positive drug test, would ever have confessed to it.
How important is drug use among track athletes? It largely depends on whom you talk to. While some people believe the proliferation of chemically-altered performances marks the end of civilization as we know it, other people couldn't care less. You tell them that some resourceful runners, prior to a foot race, had ingested speed-juice, and they'll say, So what? Who cares? What's some silly track meet have to do with world poverty or climate change?
Still, this raises an awkward question. If it's a fact that HGH and other compounds make you run faster, and if it's a fact that many big-time sprinters (Gay, Justin Gatlin, Asafa Powell, et al) have used them, how does Usain Bolt continue to beat these guys? Is he that "fast," or have the investigators not yet discovered what he's taking? Clearly, it's an inflammatory question, but we'd be naive not to ask it.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep.