Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Quest for an Unfair Advantage

Jeptoo’s Elixer

True sport is sport that upholds the principles of fair play, sportsmanship, integrity, and ethics.
The WADA Code

By Van Rensselaer Townsend

Using EPO is much easier than many running fans imagine. The hormone comes in small vials. No IV bags or drips. The user does not need to offer up an arm vein; the small needle is injected into a pinched roll of skin (subcutaneous) just like an allergy shot. Erythropoietin is almost prohibitively expensive in the jacked-up Insurance morass we call “Medical Treatment” in the US. It goes into the books as costing $800. Monopoly money. A doctor cannot prescribe EPO unless a patient’s red blood cells are dangerously low. There are loads of prescribing protocol parameters in the US system.

But not everywhere. George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s loyal lieutenant domestique, likens purchasing EPO to “buying a pack of gum” at Swiss pharmacies where the drug was available without a prescription over the counter. A recent write-up on Jeptoo’s bust penned by Justin Lagat , a Kenyan correspondent ,explains that all sorts of drugs are inexpensive and available within the East African nation.

We must also remember that running within the Kenyan culture is competitive not only on an athletic level but also on a financial platform. As a general rule, Kenyans don’t run for fun. Sure, kids often run to school , their uniform ties flapping breezily. But when we listen to the interviews, we learn that they aren’t running to beat the opening bell for fun; they know they will be given “six of the best” (British term for 6 whacks with a ruler). When these kids grow up, they see individuals who have succeeded as professional racers. And they see scores of neighbors TRYING to make the grade. On any given Thursday, they find 200-plus runners, many in hand-me-down gear and outdated shoes, cruising a structured fartkek on wide rolling dusty roads. Everyone tries to keep up. Various strivers are shelled off the back. But that defeat doesn’t discourage them from showing up next Thursday to suffer similar punishment. Why? A Kenyan runner wants to change his or her financial life.

With the country’s annual median income hovering around US $350, to even win a thousand dollars at US or European road race is big money. That money multiplied can buy a small farm, a couple of cars to launch a taxi service, even purchase or build an hotel. Pro running is the ticket. The ticket out. Often even the bus ticket out of your village to travel six hours on rutted roads across the Rift Valley to reach a dream of running at Nairobi’s National Cross race held at the fabled N’gong Horse Racing Venue. Once standing there, pawing the start line in your worn-out, size-too-small spikes, you pray to God that you finish high up enough in the field to be noticed by the many European agents who flock to Kenya to find the Next Big Thing. Or at least a promising prospect to sign and develop. Then you can move to a “camp” where you will cook ugali with fellow aspirants and be coached by someone who knows what they are doing. Or perhaps a college scout might be in attendance at N’gong Raceway as well. Teenagers in your village have flown off for free educations in such far away, exotic places as, sight unseen, South Alabama. In the States, many recruited athletes take the allowed five “official visits” to decide between universities. Not so for Kenyans. Here’s your ticket out, son; pack your bags.

So EPO use is not OUT of the question in Kenya and other countries; it is more IN the question. Having said that, Kenyans and runners the world over are, as a majority, clean. But isn’t that the Way of the World? From bankers to baseballers, certain individuals will cheat to get on or near the top. To Track & Field and Road Racing’s credit, they air their dirty laundry. Running is far more “transparent” than other professional sports. It takes years and Senate Investigative Committees to uncover Major League Baseball’s sordid PED use. Football? Forget about it. They have to be pressured into punishing a player for face-punching his fiancée in an elevator.

Let’s be clear, doping is cheating. It is gaining an unnatural and unfair advantage. Whether we be Kenyans, Germans, Italians, Spaniards or Americans, the rules dictate fairness. Unfortunately, sadly, even tragically, human ambition clouds those rules. Some find acquiescent doctors/enablers or come up with all sorts of self-justifications to skirt those boundaries: “It’s not illegal YET”, “Everyone is doing it,” “I’m just trying to level the playing field.” Heard these rationales? Bet you have. Lance told us as much. Shakespeare wrote about the tragic conundrum in his play MACBETH: a good man gone bad. Coupled with overweening ambition, temptation is timeless.

In the running world, be that your local scene or the global rarefied racing air, we all want to run faster. But as recreational runners and fans, we need to recognize that at the top professional level, the temptation, drug availability, and financial incentive is far, far greater than our city’s track club or YMCA fun-run group aiming to break 3 hours for the marathon atmosphere. So, in addition to heaping praise upon pro performances, let’s admire those athletes who achieve their accolades whilst being pure and drug- free. And here’s why we need to be stringent and vigilant about drug-testing: we want to be doubt-free when we marvel at magnificent achievements.

Running is a primal sport. No gym equipment. No Studios needed to twist and contort our bodies. No obstacle courses to surmount. Just plain natural. Let’s keep it that way.

Editor’s Note: Van Townsend has been runner and coach for 30 -plus years, but now battles a bone marrow blood cancer where he had to become a fast learner on the proper medical usages of EPO, testosterone, red blood cell transfusions, dexamethasone ( a corticoid steroid), and even amphetamines. As he jokes, “While racing, I couldn’t have told you the difference between hematocrit and a bike race crit, but now I have to use all these PEDS just to stay alive rather than win. Damn!”

Postscript: Breaking Bad…and sad news. Writers often remark that stories write themselves. Well, apropos of the above piece, I just learned that in our sleepy Chattanooga city, last weekend’s Women’s Overall winner in our annual Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon cheated in attaining her 2:55:39 victory. This 31 year old made Rose Ruiz look clever by comparison. Tabatha Hamilton thought she could bewitch race officials by coming through the first half in 2:06 and then finishing up with a magical 50 minutes for the last 13.1 miles. Her husband, who may have colluded with his wife, must have forgotten to tell her that negative split would be almost 10 minutes quicker than the very best professional males’ marks for 21k. Tabatha’s (yes, she can’t even spell her name properly) previous marathon best was 4:20. When asked after the race if this win was a PR, she said, “I think so, by 6 or 7 minutes.” Ok, multiply by ten and a 70 minute improvement is closer to the true falsehood. Of course, Tabatha trotted out the usual “I’m crushed and heartbroken as my name is mud right now.” Yup, too bad, girl. The chip timing technology worked and you got popped. So, as we sadly surmise, even slow people cheat. From amateurs to professionals, let’s keep working to keep it real.

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