For those who do not yet know, an Olympic runner from Ireland based in America named Martin Fagan received a positive drug test recently. As a result he openly admitted to using banned substances to enhance performance. This came as a big shock to the running community as Martin is a well liked and a generally modest runner who one might least expect to do such a thing. The aftermath has left many runners disappointed in his actions. Some are asking why he cheated and already leaning towards forgiveness. On the other side his actions have also lit the fires of anger with some asking for his permanent departure from the sport. Either way you go the situation sparks an important debate and points ever harder to a sad, but inevitable crossroads for the sport of professional running.
This topic and the global phenomena surrounding it demands much more debate and scrutiny. But, for the sake of informing the uninformed and aiding the naive, I offer you this brief outline for consideration.
Many professional runners are of the opinion that there should be a true “Zero Tolerance” policy regarding athletes who are caught for cheating. I say many runners due to my experiences hearing elite runners complain on this issue at almost every post race celebration or gathering. To them, true Zero Tolerance would mean that if you get caught just one time, then you should be out for good with a lifetime ban from racing at major championships meets. If you think that sounds harsh then consider this; most athletes who have been caught for cheating are often courteous and friendly. Cheaters are not the stereotypical villains seen in movies, they are normal people gone astray often due to vanity, greed or misguidance. Whatever the specific motivation or excuse behind their actions, the intention simply and clearly is to cheat the athletes that they compete against. Once that process is put into action, there is no taking it back. Just ask Frank Shorter who’s moment of Olympic glory was stolen from him at the 1976 Olympics. Shorter finished second place to an East German athlete who was implicated much later via found documents pointing to his use of performance enhancers. Frank Shorter went on to sit as chairman of the United States Anti-doping Agency to help fight against the growing problem. Another clear example is that of Regina Jacobs. Regina was a US runner who won multiple US championship titles and was later caught for PED use. There are many runners who not only lost income to her, but lost their chance to represent the United States at the Olympic games because of her cheating. Their opportunity to become an Olympian or champion has come and gone and they will never get back what she has stolen from them.
A big question arises in the midst of this scandal. Some are asking, ‘What if Martin had never gotten caught? Would he have turned himself in?’ I’d say that’s doubtful. Would he have gone on to compete for years no one the wiser? I’d say that’s probable. The sad reality is that past evidence shows there are runners nationally and internationally that do not get caught by testing. For them, the only thing to fear is a two year bench warming session during which they can repair their reputation and give people time to forget their transgressions. If you want proof of that just look at some championship races that are slated to take place this year. One of the heralded names on the marquee (Justin Gatlin) in one of the biggest venues this season (the Olympic Games) this is an athlete returning from his ban.
In reading this, I hope you take the time to establish your own opinion and make your own voice heard on this topic. When an athlete like Martin is caught cheating and fans or the media are sympathetic or indifferent to his excuses, and he is given a light probationary punishment by the powers that be, it sends two messages to other up and coming athletes. The first message it sends is that athletes are cheaters and the practice is commonplace. That could not be further from the truth. The second message it sends is that the risk is worth the reward. Young athletes might see this situation and posit that if they cheat and have a good excuse, people will easily forgive and forget. That last point is where the crossroads lies for running. How strongly are we willing to enforce the rules to keep our sport clean and fair? Will we stay the current course or take a harder stance and try to make cheating much less appealing and viable? And, most importantly, there is much more than morality at risk here. With this current ethical trajectory in running, the health and well being of runners young and old is in great danger.
Accountability does not magically appear on its own. It is created and fostered by everyday people, as well as developed and practiced by said people. You and I are these people and we can’t expect our words and actions to not have an affect on our sport. Your friends, your family or your kids might be the next rising athlete. We live our lives and compete in sport as men and women wandering in search of happiness. Martin Fagan seems to have seriously lost his way and I for one am not angry at him for that. His story and mistakes should be a wake up call to everyone in sport. For me, it reinforces the idea of possibly implementing true zero tolerance. Each year new athletes will follow his footsteps and face the same obstacles. How will they react when they encounter these obstacles? The cold, hard reality is that every runner has faced the same financial struggles or injury set-backs that Martin has. Fortunately, most of us have developed enough character and constitution to withstand, endure and overcome adversity. I can think of much tougher circumstances people have endured for the sake of standing up for integrity and ethics.
I’ll leave you with this; would you prefer your athlete or child to win at all cost, sacrificing their integrity, morality, and long-term health for the sake of material gain(choices and actions that will spill over and contaminate all other working and personal relationships in their lives). Or would you prefer they be an incorruptible runner? An incorruptible runner is the type of virtuous athlete who lives to attain greater health and well being though their efforts, striving for immeasurable introspective achievement and the highest intangible awards and accolades. Make your choice now and set the example for them to live up to.