Monday, December 28, 2015

Athletic cheating in trail running: how much is ok, really?

I started writing this post last weekend and couldn't finish it, too much work before my next business trips (leaving for the Middle East again on January 2nd...), and too big and serious of an issue to address...

So, as I was writing last Sunday, it had been a tough week for the ultra community on social networks. Well, not everybody seems to be so affected as a matter of fact, I'm beyond words to describe the discomfort I got from seeing so many lax positions in the blogosphere and on Facebook in particular. I must be an ultra idealist, let me try to get a big weight out of my chest: if we are not 100% against cheating and for enforcing bans, but start accepting offenders into certain competitions, for the sake of being inclusive and cool, how much is tolerated then? My feeling is that, as this has been demonstrated in many other sports already, or in life in general, any tolerance, any grey area, yes any shade of grey, is spoiling the whole body. Double solid line, no passing!

For those of you who have no clue what I'm referring to, a very quick recap to put this post in context. No, it's not about the previous six episodes of Star Wars (and The Force Awakens is a great continuation of the saga!). 2 weeks ago now, Lance Armstrong (no need for introduction) ran a local 35K trail race and won it. Granted, not a competitive one, not one with prize money, but a race setup by an organization which certainly believes in competitiveness in our ultra sport as it has its own ultra trail racing team. As a matter of fact this organization is called Inside Trail Racing, so competition is built in its name and mission, and they are also engaging the reputation of their numerous sponsors. There have been so many posts on this matter, my preferred one is the very well documented, and therefore lengthy, article from Vladimir Gusiatnikov. Although I don't agree with the conclusion, it has the great merit to weigh in several positions in a very constructive manner.

Like many, I was caught by surprise and overwhelmed by many questions. Trying to be a sensible and considerate runner, I was even torn between the two camps: "shouldn't have happened!" on one hand and, on the other, "we, the trail running community, are inclusive and everyone is welcome."

Indeed, I started thinking that, with a wealth estimated at over 100 million dollars, Lance Armstrong could certainly do a lot to support our sport and, for a start, help us to keep it clean since cost seems so much of an excuse for accepting cheaters or ex cheaters in race, just because drug testing is deemed too costly. That part blown me away as it seems to show a total lack of citizenship, civic sense or responsibility. Call me naive again, but that is so against the view I have of this country. So, because there is no test, and because most of us don't make a living out of ultra running, then doping is acceptable? By the way, this tolerance to cheating impact many other areas of our lives:
  • How much cheating would you deem acceptable in proctored tests such as SAT and ACT? What if your child's future and chances of landing a great school or job were going to be impacted?
  • How many seconds are ok for running a red light? What if it was going to hit you and you had to finish your life in a wheel chair instead of running on trails for many more years?
  • Would you not respect speed limits if there weren't controlled, if there was no risk of being caught by law enforcement?
  • How much is texting while driving ok? Really, some, until you or they kill someone?!
  • Tell me, is some cheating tolerated on tax returns, or none just because the IRS is watching?
Back to running, we had another case of cheating making the news this weekend: a runner who qualified for Boston and won age group awards at the Marine Corps Marathon by cutting the course. not at one edition, but at more than a handful of them! And what did he have to say, once caught? "“I messed up. There’s no reason to do that,” he said. “There’s really nothing else to say. There’s not a good explanation. I apologize to all the other runners. I feel bad, there’s no great back story to it. It’s just wrong.” (see the story in Runner's World and The Washington Post). Once it starts, cheating can take many forms (and, how easy it would be to cheat at some ultra events by cutting the course short when there is no one watching...).

As for the challenge of keeping convicted cheaters out of races, a race director from the Northwest even argued several times on Facebook that he couldn't possibly check every entrant for previous offense. Well, I have a very simple solution for that: like some forms ask if this is your first ultra or not, or to agree with the event T&Cs, what about asking if you've been convicted or not, that will do. We may even ask entrants if they are taking PEDs, why not, for instance it would be good to know if that's for therapeutic reasons. Because, that's another alarming issue I discovered in a few threads: that some people aren't so bothered with PEDs because, according to some statements, half (sic) the teenagers running cross-country in high school, are prescribed and use Albuterol, a banned substance, in competition. Having had my boys participating in such meets and been close to our XC team, I don't believe the half is true but even if it's 1%, it should be a shame which we fight, not tolerate and accept. Yes, as subject to exercise-induced asthma myself as you might have read on this blog. My first crisis caught me by surprise during the Phoenix marathon around mile 10 when I was still in the top 10 of the race. Not knowing what this was about, and not able to breath much, I decided to walk the remaining 16 miles. I finished in 5 hours and change, my slowest marathon ever. A stop by the local ER didn't do anything and, a few days later, I was prescribed Albuterol. After some research on the Internet, I was shocked to discover that the product was banned by the French Track & Field association but not the American one! I was still competing in French Nationals from time to time back then, so using the product was out of question anyway. But, more importantly, it was clearly identified as an enhancer, I didn't need more rules to realize that using this product in competitions in the US would be cheating, even if the product was allowed for therapeutic use. Should I be allowed PEDs because I've shorter legs than others? Should someone be allowed PEDs because they have a lower VO2max than other competitors?

And that is really the point which baffles me so much in all these discussions. In various threads, so many people were asking for more rules and, until such rules were discussed, debated, agreed upon, promulgated and enforced, then suggesting everything was ok. Suggesting that, until drug testing prevailed in races, the usage of PEDs wasn't cheating. That's where I would have to agree with some radicals claiming that we need less rules, less government, not more. Indeed, it should be common sense to apply the knowledge accessible to all that these products have been evaluated as enhancing performance in an artificial way which contradicts the principle of fairness in sport competitions.

Puzzling too were the comments that elites must all be cheating obviously for being so fast, like accusing Killian Jornet for instance. First, with all the racing he does in Europe, I'm sure Killian has been tested more than anyone else in our sport. And negatively as far as we all know. But, seriously, Killian? Climbing mountains since the age of 4, training so hard while having so much fun, who has lived in a van for many months, such a simple life that almost anyone could have spotted if there were any suspicious products coming in! Of course, he got caught cutting corners and switchbacks but that's how he learned to run in mountains where there weren't any trail anyway. And I trust that, since the SpeedGoat episode, he has realized how serious we were with that.

Anyway, this is already too many lines to make a case for a black and white position on this, it should not have to be that complicated. For what it is worth since it is based on an honor system, which more people than I thought don't seem to really support or believe in, this initiative made my day on Monday: Run Clean, Get Dirty. Here is the univocal pledge of the signatories:
I am committed to being a clean athlete. In addition to any punishment imposed by the IAAF, a national federation, or any national anti-doping agency or government in any sport, I pledge that if I am found by such body to have committed a doping offense (at any competition or out of competition) past, present or future, and I have been subject to a ban of 3 months or more, I agree to a lifetime ban on receiving any prize money, points, other form of prize, or a position in the competitive rankings of any race.
You cheat, you are out, no discussion, how simpler can that be? It still involves testing and being caught, but it's a good start. Personally, I would have added one more statement: "Furthermore, I pledge not to take any banned Performance Enhancing Drug." Since this is really what's important.

So, here is the personal note I added to the pledge I just took:
The essence of trail, mountain and ultra running is how you deal with the physical and mental challenges offered by nature. It includes a personal element (you against the elements, a certain distance, the clock) but also a competitive aspect (you against the performance of others, either in organized events or other peer to peer measures). Using artificial and banned substance is not only cheating others but also yourself and nature. Since PEDs are changing the nature of that game, irreversibly, competition bans should not have time limits. The beauty of trail and ultra running lies in their natural form, let's keep our sport 100% clean for the current and future generations!
I certainly pledge to forgo any concept of competition and ranking if I'm ever to be convicted of cheating with PEDs but I also pledge that I will simply not use any banned PED.

In many aspects, I feel sorry that we have to do this but, from time to time, it seems that we need to reframe our human nature. The freedom we have to act, leading the freedom to pick right or wrong options and paths...

For race directors, since we don't want bandits in races either, that means that they could still enlist banned competitors, but exclude them from any ranking. Should be doable although the sites managing races results will be impacted.

In conclusion, this isn't at all about banning cheaters from the joy of running on trails or in group runs! It's not even about the fact that our community is inclusive and cool or not with that matter. It's about people who have taken cheated others by artificial manipulations in a way that it erases that equal playing field principle. It's not something you can erase or change, it's something they could have avoided before engaging into such banned manipulations. Let's face it, it's not possible to agree on an acceptable level of cheating or cheating redemption, it would be purely subjective, so the only way to keep our sport clean is by maintaining a zero tolerance approach to the use of PEDs. Drug testing or not. #cleansport. Simple.

I feel sorry to have to write on this topic. Sincerely. As a matter of fact, I know so little about doping for one thing, and I'm certainly not a pioneer of this sport, so what do I know? I did win some prize money from racing, albeit certainly not enough to pay the bills and I'm lucky to not have to win races for a living since I'm not an elite! But still, I have more experience than many who voiced their opinions so publicly. So, as the saying goes and Errol "Rocket" Jones would say in particular, this is my story and I'm sticking to it! I hope this will show that a few in the quiet majority so far aren't ok with what happened 2 weeks ago. Yet, I would also welcome the wisdom of the older gurus of our sport whom I found rather quiet on that matter...

1 comment:

Jean Pommier said...

Another interesting case and additional perspective on Therapeutic Use Exceptions (TUE):