Words by David Ng
In this story reprinted from the February 2016 issue of RUN Singapore, David Ng explores the debacle that enveloped the athletics scene when a series of scandals rocked the industry.
The end of a calendar and Lunar New Year presents a natural running coda. A chance to review your effort and to set new challenges. Whilst there may be some (or hopefully many) targets in the past year which have been reached, others may remain near or distant dreams. For those uncomfortable or driven by their unfulfilled goals, ask yourself:
Were your targets actually realistic? What can you action now to bring you closer to these goals? What sacrifices are you willing to make to improve your running potential?
Each individual has personal (running) goals, but what lengths should an individual resort to in their quest for achievement? We can be guided by personal circumstances and constraints, which define our resources available to achieve our limits. Redefining what we think our limits may be, and not setting preconceptions of what our limits may be, is perhaps the alluring attraction of being a runner.
With the ability to track our progress, and the wide availability of advice on coaching methods, running technique, diet and scientific knowledge that helps optimise potential, we love to run because of the possibility of achieving more. At the elite national and international level, this allure is magnified, with the prospect of prize money, recognition and adulation. Achieving success and podium recognition, or even higher ranking on medal tables are favoured ways to build national pride and national identity.
Year 2015 in the sport of Track & Field has seen many examples of misguided goals, where the sacrifices beyond the norm have been made, and a several high profile scandals have been exposed. Whilst the temptation to cheat has perhaps always been there, the high profile nature of T&F World Championships, Olympic Games and the riches of the professional running and T&F circuit has increased the temptation to take short cuts. At a home level, money prize purses at most local races, notably the Singapore Marathon, Sundown Marathon and most other established local events inevitably increase the temptation to push legal limits.
With the ever increasing presence of depth in running talent, facilitated in part by the internationalisation of running events and the ability for running to be a way out of poverty for developing nation runners (with Kenya, Jamaica, Ethiopia being notable traditional hotbeds of talent), there is an endless supply of committed athletes. Meanwhile, the perennial powerhouses of the USA, Russia and China, where running also offers financial riches and nation defining pride at high profile competitions, pressure is perhaps sourced from governing bodies that need to give a return on funding.
Further fuelling of the prospect of dishonest behaviour in running at an international level is the importance of sponsorship contracts and the competitive nature of securing funding for national governing bodies of sports associations, and the professionalisation of the administration aspect of sports management, where non-runners gain a living from managing the sport and current runners.
Managing Realistic Targets:
One outcome of the increased money in running is the ranking on league tables at major T&F meets, be it international, regional (Asian games) or sub-regional level (SEA Games) being a key focus for many involved in the sport. In the case of the likes of leading track nations like Jamaica and Kenya, and the perennial powerhouses of Russia, the USA and China, national pride and the need in many instances to show a return on government subsidised training programmes to maintain funding is a driver for performance. League table performance can however be seen as a ‘meet specific’ target, which can be considered short term. Such specific targets ignore a longer term approach which involves commitment and a grassroots funding to talent development to ensure a pipeline of new athletes are uncovered and properly engaged in the sport.
At the individual athlete level, development targets remain personal given the individual nature of running. Yet often individual goals are seen collectively and so intertwined with national and administrative goals. With the aggregation of team (and national) targets, individual athletes are grouped to arrive at meet targets, having the effect of depersonalising individual goals.
The advent of various national level scandals and suggestions of systematic doping programs in the Russian athletic federation is currently the subject of ongoing investigations in France and Russia. Meanwhile, the Russian athletics federation has been suspended from competition indefinitely after the recent World Anti-Doping Agency report found evidence of state-supported doping of athletes.
This recent mess is in addition to the questions hanging over Lamine Diack, the immediate prior President of the IAAF amidst claims of bribery to supress the alleged Russian doping, for which the World Anti-Doping Agency (‘WADA’) report released in November 2015 found evidence that brings into serious question the London 2012 Olympic T&F results. The fallout is that multiple results are now about to be corrected to strike out medals won by now tainted athletes.
We live in an era of doubt when exceptional running performances are posted. The shadow of Ben Johnson from 1988, and the many other questionable results before and since that watershed running moment. The dangerous combination of money, misguided national agendas and intermediaries that include administrators, agents, coaches and the like who may be tempted to support short term goals at all costs is always going to be a challenge for vulnerable athletes who have at most 10 years to stay internationally competitive and achieve financial security.
Bandits, PEDs & Cheats:
2015 has been a busy year for negative press for the sporting world, with dishonesty, corruption and vested interests building even more notoriety in our sport. The non-exhaustive list includes the 2015 Nairobi marathon where a ‘bandit’ claimed second and for a time, the $7,000 prize money until he was exposed. Then there is the cloud over Kenyan athletics, with multiple suspensions being served by ‘winning’ athletes over recent years, being capped with the recent suspension in November 2015 of the Kenya Athletics President, whilst the IAAF investigates on subversion of the anti-doping procedures and possible misuse of funds.
This backdrop of doubt being raised about clean athletes and administrators compounds the even more damaging impact that the Union of Cycling Internationale (UCI) administration has had on professional cycling. The recent and long-running Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) controversies around the Tour de France, with Lance Armstrong at the centre, has surely pushed some spectators and athletes away from that sport.
The dilution of fundamental ethical values and the preference for pushing vested by administrators and the support staff of athletes is a key cause of creating environments which allow cheating via PEDs to occur. Whilst each individual athlete is consciously responsible for their own in-take, it is unlikely they could infringe without complicit knowledge and help from support staff. But at the core of doped athletes, what other factors drive them to take short cuts and cheat?
Values and Context:
Each guilty athlete is unique, and so it would be folly to generalise with broad statements. However, what is a common factor is the lack of regard for genuine achievement of long term goals. The temptation for elite athletes to boost performance by a few percentage points quickly is a crossroad that each cheat would have encountered. The decision to infringe on the values of fair-play to fellow competitors and one’s own integrity would have been trumped by doubts about their own abilities, training regime and prospects at that time. The decision to cheat would be with little regard for the long term goals and the prospect of taking a longer but untainted route to achieving their true potential.
PED cheats, be they athletes, administrators or coaches also forget about their responsibility to our great sport of running. They disregard the basic beauty of it being free, intuitive and within us all to run. They forget that it is our first sport as humans, and that it is the foundation of all sports given running is about agility, speed, endurance and persistence. They forget about the interrelationship of short goals and long term goals, and the beauty of testing and finding one’s natural limits, and then redefining them. For those PED cheats that remain unexposed, their achievements are of course equally tainted, and their relationship with running will be without spirit and authenticity.
So as you review your past year of running and set new-year targets, make them reflect your reality. Be honest with your targets, and then create ‘reach targets’ by knowing each short-term goal is linked to your long-term vision of what you can become as a runner. Whilst speed and endurance are favourite measures of your progress, consider also your wider credo, and what running achieves for your life-balance. Your willingness to sacrifice and deal with disappointment, and using that disappointment as motivation to get you back on the road the next day in your favourite running outfit is the essence of a truly dedicated runner.
Trust your running to bring out your best traits in the long run. Those that seek short-cuts feel uncomfortable with facing their running reality, and lack trust in the ability for running to bring out the best in themselves.