The drugs they say make us feel so hollow
We love in vain narcissistic and so shallow
We’re all stars now in the dope show
In the past week, two stories – one major and one minor – have dominated the world of distance sports. One-time American hero Lance Armstrong had a USADA report released about him last week that makes him look like a world class jerk. The evidence against Sir Lancealot is pretty damning. At the very least, magazine articles featuring his former mechanic along with interviews with fellow competitors and 300 page books paint Lance Armstrong as nothing short of a monster.
At the same time, one could look at Lance Armstrong’s pad or his net worth of upwards of $125 million coupled with the undeniable fact that “everyone was doing it” and easily understand his motivation for cheating.
On the flip side of things is the story of Christian Hesch. He’s a mediocre professional runner (mediocre compared to other professional runners… he’d look like a golden god running with mortals like you and I). However, after a fellow competitor found an empty vial of EPO in his bag, Christian Hesch was forced to turn himself in.
Hesch, who you have probably never heard of, is what people in running circles label “sub-elite.” Being stuck in the sub-elite category, he has no major sponsorship and often will enter a lot of events at a lot of different distances in fields they deem not competitive in order to make money. Not a lot of money (he claims to have won $40,000 in the two years he was doping). Here lies the problem. Money.
Interesting enough, though, Hesch describes the feeling that EPO gave him. Athletes are supposed to feel the effects after 6 vials. His red blood cell percentage jumped from 44% to 51%. After two or three weeks, he claimed “your running feels like what you imagine when you see all those Kenyan runners floating down the road.”
Here is the other problem. Taking EPO works. Hesch wasn’t subject to testing and because there was no baseline, there was essentially no way he would get caught in a drug test. Had he not been caught red handed, he would have gotten away with this for quite some time. I again point to the fact that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong, and a whole host of others never failed a drug test.
Whether taking performance enhancing drugs better your ability to become rich beyond your wildest dreams or allow you to a minimal amount of money that at least allows you to pay the bills, money seems to be the motivating factor to cheat.
Taking a look behind the curtains of the financial side of running is very eye opening. A handful of the elites are making bank ($100,000+), but it’s not nearly as many runners as you’d think. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Some 80% of professional track and field athletes who are ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. in their event make less than $50,000 a year, according to a survey conducted by the USA Track and Field Foundation. Half of them make less than $15,000” – which, if you are scoring at home, is less than minimum wage based on a 40 hour work week. Sadly, rules of the sport – especially as it relates to the Olympics – severely limit athletes ability to attract sponsors. A blog post by former Olympian Amy Yoder Begley helped shed a little light on what really goes on with track and field contracts. Thankfully, some of the biggest names in the sport are trying to change this.
Is this problem going to go away tomorrow? Nope. More money, fame, and accolades will certainly encourage certain people to give it a try to get any edge they can, but hopefully more education, better testing, and a minimal amount of money by changes in sponsorship rules can help at least curb doping in this sport.