August 04, 2006

Hall of Shame: A new entrant, Just-in!

By H Natarajan

“Winning is not everything; it’s the only thing,” said Vince Lombardi, the celebrated American football coach. But even he would not suggest banned drugs as recourse winning.

Drug cheats are known to be incorrigible. The most infamous of the lot is Ben Johnson, who came back from a ban and was busted a second time to be barred for life. Johnson is part of a long list that has disgraced sports by seeking the aid of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. The Hall of Shame comprises such high-profile names as Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Katrin Krabbe, Diego Maradona, to name just a few.

A new entrant in the Hall is 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis. But even before the dust settled of the Tour settled in glitzy Champs-Elysees, news came of World and Olympic 100m champion Justin Gatlin failing a dope test. Gatlin was found to have elevated levels of the hormone testosterone after a meeting in April. Testosterone is a hormone that occurs naturally or manufactured to be administered externally for developing muscle mass, speed, endurance and in expediting the process of recovery from injuries.

The transgression could put an end to Gatlin’s international career as he had earlier tested positive at the 2001 U.S. Junior Championships for amphetamines. He was slapped with a two-year ban, which was subsequently reduced to a year after he pleaded that he had taken the drug for Attention Deficit Disorder affliction. Gatlin, then 19, had said: “I have been involved with efforts to educate people about the dangers of using drugs and would never do anything to disappoint my fans and supporters. It is simply not consistent with either my character or my confidence in my God-given ability to cheat in any way.”

But such words do little to enhance an athlete’s credibility because of bitter experiences in the past. Even Ben Johnson toured schools to pontificate to children about the dangers of drug abuse.

The fact that Trevor Graham, Gatlin’s coach, has trained at least six world champions who received suspensions for failing doping tests does not help the Gatlin’s case. A man who worked with Graham told a San Francisco grand jury and investigators that he supplied performance-enhancing drugs to the coach and many of his athletes, including multiple Olympic-gold winner Marion Jones and former 100m world record holder Tim Montgomery, according to The New York Times.

Gatlin has a credibility worry in defending his case as he will be perceived as guilty by association as well with a man tainted by systematic abuse.

One of the saddest comments came from the International Cycling Federation chief Pat McQuaid after Landis tested positive, McQuaid said that he was considering seeking help from the police to tackle the huge problem plaguing sports. His words, in effect, meant that men and women who were looked upon as role models will now be perceived as cheats. McQuaid knows best considering that abuse in the world of pro cycling is a malady of epidemic proportions.

Landis’s failed drug test takes one back to Stage 16 of the race when he was almost dead in the mountains. With more arduous mountains ahead, it seemed all over for the American. But Landis stunned the world with an incredible comeback, which now logically comes under a cloud of suspicion following the sensational revelation.

Even if Landis is still officially not yet deemed guilty, his comeback nevertheless reminded one of Ben Johnson’s unbelievable sprint in the 100m final of the Seoul Olympics. Carl Lewis' times were faster in the heats. In contrast, Johnson was unimpressive and only got through as a fastest loser. But Johnson exploded from the blocks and led right through the final. He hit a maximum speed of 43.4 km/h to finish the race in just 45 strides. There was more to this amazing run than the contrast between the heats and the final. In 15 years - between 1968 and 1983 - the 100 m record was shaved by 0.04 s, but in one year Johnson took 0.16s off the record! Tests revealed that the record was stanozolol powered. The truth was out and so was Johnson – his medal taken away and packed off in disgrace.

It amazing how sportspersons mindlessly imperil their careers – and life – by taking recourse to banned drugs when fully aware of the risk in of getting caught by state-of-the-art gadgets in doping labs. Gatlin sacrificed it all – or it so seems at this point of time – at the peak of his prowess. Another Olympic champion sprinter, Linford Christie, tested positive in the evening of his career.

Gatlin’s rivalry with Asafa Powell was hailed as one of the major attractions in world athletics – one of which I was privileged to see at the Norwich Union Super Grand Prix at Crystal Palace, London, last year. Sadly, Powell collapsed on the track midway with a groin injury leaving Gatlin a winner. It’s such rivalries that blazes track events. An enduring clash between Lewis and Ben Johnson was lost after the Canadian was caught. And now, the Powell-Gatlin rivalry looks to die a premature death with Gatlin in danger of going the Johnson way.

After Johnson’s medal was taken away in Seoul, Lewis won the gold and Christie the silver, but the sorry state of athletics is reflected by the fact that four of the top five finishers of that 100-metre race – Johnson, Lewis, Christie and Mitchell - have all tested positive for banned drugs at one point or another.

Coach Graham claims that a vengeful masseur had rubbed a steroid cream on Gatlin's legs. Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Athletes will point fingers at everyone expect where they should. They will blame masseurs, doctors and even family members. Remember Shane Warne’s unforgettable defense after he tested positive for drugs? He blamed his mother for giving him a diuretic to improve his appearance! Ben Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, said that the runner’s drink was spiked by a mystery man in the room he was waiting to give his urine sample. When not taking the conspiracy theory route, they will cast veiled suspicion at the drug-testing methods. Landis, for example, says the elevated testosterone levels in his body was a result of his natural metabolism, but tests now refute that cry of innocence by declaring that it was synthetic testoterone.

Modern science and medicine are coming up with newer ways to nab violators, but the drug cheats seem to be staying ahead of the game. The widespread belief is that there are many more cheats out there who are still out there who have not be caught – at least for the moment. At the Athens Olympics, as many as 25 sportspersons — sprinters, long-distance runners, short-putters, discus-throwers, cyclists, boxers, rowers and weightlifters — were found guilty of drug offences. And in that infamous list were three champions, who were stripped of their gold medals.

Andy Miah, author of Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping & Sport, was quoted in the Guardian: “It is my view that all athletes are performance-enhancing in some way. The question that eludes any clear answer is how many are using prohibited enhancements and the answer is: potentially, all of them. No substance is safe from a change in legal status, even something as apparently harmless as an altitude chamber.”

Miah, a lecturer in Media, Bioethics and Cyberculture at University of Paisley, Scotland and Tutor in Ethics of Science & Medicine in the Graduate School of Biomedical & Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Scotland, added: “Many athletes use a whole range of technological enhancers that have never reached the public domain or the attention of anti-doping authorities. We are, in truth, only at the beginning of the era of human enhancements, and attempts to stem the tide of drug use in sport will slowly begin to seem less important. Consider conversations about genetic modification or nanotechnology. Who will care about something like caffeine or testosterone use in such an enhanced future?”

Some of the most revered men have come across as poor role models. Landis and Gatlin only contributed their share to cycling and athletics respectively that are notoriously infested with cheats. And a few weeks back, one of the greatest-ever footballers turned a World Cup final action into a Harlem alley by head-butting his rival before a worldwide televised audience, among who were millions of children. These are not good time for sports.


At 7:14 pm, Blogger Kishor Cariappa said...

Lance Armstrong won't like it for sure.


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