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Bigalke
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(post for BVOF Halloween Feast Blogging Brawl)

(posted 31 October 2008 - 17:00 Eastern)

 

 

Bigalke - The Cerebral Vortex

 

 

 

It's amazing what a person can find when he is sitting bored at work, waiting to fire food. There I was today, desperately trying to find anything to read which I hadn't thumbed through a dozen times already. I stumbled across something without a cover which I hadn't yet picked through. I plunked down on the break room couch, took a drink from my tea, and tucked into the tome...

 

Lo and behold, it was a damn ELLE magazine! Yet among the glossy advertisements for things which I'd never be able to afford for my wife (nor which she'd really desire) was an article which genuinely piqued my interest. There, toward the back of the undated issue, buried behind the fluff and fashion news, was an article titled "Nowhere to Run"...

 

The story of Kelli White -- the American sprinter who tested positive for modanifil at the 2003 IAAF World Championships after becoming the first American woman to sweep both the 100- and 200-meter sprints in a single championships -- delves into the paradox which faces athletes as they rise to the elite ranks. It is easy for the fan to rankle about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport, but rarely do we consider the reasoning by which these athletes turn to the "cream" or the "clear" or any number of hormones or steroids or even simple blood.

 

Fans are a fickle sort. Citius, altius, fortius -- humans intrinsically crave from their athletes that they perform better than their forbears. Take, for instance, the case of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who decimated his own 100-meter world record at this summer's Beijing Olympics. Even as he crossed the line, seemingly dancing with joy at his gilded performace, the critics were coming out (both professional and amateur)...

 

Sure, Bolt ran faster than any human ever had before, breaking the 9.70 barrier... but didn't his premature exuberance cost him hundredths of a second? Even a team of Norwegian physicists felt it appropriate to weigh in. We want more and we want it NOW. A once-in-a-lifetime moment was born as we saw the pure joy on an athlete's face as he ran at the peak of his prowess, the stuff that legends are made of... yet we nitpick over milliseconds! Under such pressure to go harder, is it any wonder that some have felt the need to turn toward synthetic success to keep their careers alive and humming?

 

I've written long and hard on the issue of doping over the years. (Ed. note: Links to selected previous articles will be linked as appropriate throughout.)  A paradox lurks within myself as I consider just how to feel about those athletes for whom performance enhancement means more than mere training hours. It is easy to come down with a moralistic hammer, decrying anything and everything that ever happens. But at the same time one cannot cast aspersions on an athlete without also looking with a skeptical eye at the governing bodies of sport -- for they too have been complicit in the seemingly-nefarious actions taken by athletes across the spectrum of sporting battlefields...

 

The rift can easily be seen along the lines of international versus American professional sport, but they go much deeper than that. While one body might come at its athletes with regular testing, hard-line penalties and a laundry list of prohibited items, another body might restrict one or two choice chemicals and bring weaker sanctions for their use. Take, for instance, cortisone -- one man's prohibited substance is another man's painkiller. While the International Olympic Committee, World Anti-Doping Agency and governing bodies for sports such as cycling and track and field ban their athletes' use of corticoid treatments, these injections are the lifeblood for most American sports leagues... and even down to their ostensibly-amateur variants at the high-school and collegiate ranks.

 

No, this is not a matter solely of two differing schools of thought but rather the result of decades of development in two different cultures. A sport like cycling, borne from the publicity events for what essentially are still journalistic periodicals, were forced (mostly) into the open. Sponsors like La Gazzetta dello Sport (the pink pages of which were the inspiration behind the Giro d'Italia's pink leader's jersey) and L'Equipe (ditto for the Tour de France... except yellow instead of pink) have broadcast scandals as they arose over the years, from Mont Ventoux in 1967 to Michel Pollentier's crude Whizzinator in the 1970s, from Gert-Jan Theunisse to Pedro Delgado and on into the Festina/Operacion Puerto decade of discontent.

 

All the meanwhile, baseball withdrew into its insular world. Jim Bouton exposed "greenies" and the precursors to the Steroid Era in his seminal 1970 expose Ball Four, around the same time the UCI was inspiring former Tour de France great Jacques Anquetil to scoff with a wink, "Man cannot race on mineral water alone."

 

Both baseball players and cyclists since (and a host of athletes in between) have sought new and undetectable means to best the ever-advancing tests. But while one's testing protocol has had decades of scrutiny and improvements, the other comes piecemeal as backlash of a disgraced slugger's expose, thirty-five years after Bouton. Both schools of control come with an intrinsic price tag -- one up front in terms of media backlash; the other down the line once the skeletons all come tumbling out of an overpacked room.

 

When leagues across that wide spectrum of sport have differing stances on what should be banned and how athletes should be punished for their indiscretions, or when they have different takes on testing protocol, it causes fans to look -- fairly or unfairly -- at some sports as "dirty" while failing to fully demand accountability from others. What becomes crucial for fans is to take into account their own actions.

 

What would YOU do if you were forced to choose between these two disparate paths? Like Neo sitting in the chair, staring at two opportunities in capsule form, there are but those two options: the blue pill can cast you back into mediocrity, the red pill can vault you into a new realm of success. But this choice is not that simple. Rarely does an athlete haul a whole cemetary of skeletons into their closet all at once. Rather, they pile up over a long period, one on top of another until the whole stack presses too hard against the door and the bones come a-tumblin' down...

 

It is easy for a person to speak down from his or her bully pulpit when he or she has never been face to face with something which can make one's life easier. Hell, I've been there before. I've scoured the nutritional supplements at the pharmacy, packing my cart with protein powders and yohimbe and energy gels and all sorts of various substances to improve my performance on the bicycle -- powders to assist endurance, pills for increased power and poultices for pain. There was even a time when I found single-mindedness at the end of a straw before bursting up a lung-searing mountain pass a la Tom Simpson.

 

As Victor Conte has said, "I think people need to put doping in context. The military uses modafinil for fighter pilots. People take antidepressants. Women get plastic surgery. We live in a pharmacologically enhanced society."



Anyone who has ever popped a Vicodin or had a cortisone injection can attest that the paramount virtue of an athlete is to PLAY. Excuses to sit on the sidelines, reasonable as they might be,  are often viewed as weakness -- by coaches, by general managers, by fan and sportswriter alike. An athlete who is willing to take something to heal is one step removed from taking something after the healing is done...

 

There's always healing to be done for an athlete...

 

------------------------------------------------------


 

"I think people imagine that athletes wake up one day and say, 'This is what I'm going to do, I'm going to take drugs.' But it's not something that you plan out. One day you realize you're in the middle of something and everyone's telling you, 'This is your only chance.'"

 

Kelli White's story runs as so many athletes do in this modern age. A talented if unremarkable high-school track athlete, White managed to gain a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. It wasn't until her senior year that she was approached by scouts about her thoughts about going professional on the track. At 23, she went to work with sprint specialist Remy Korchemny in California. She started as an avowed opponent of performance-enhancing drugs -- "I thought, I'm not doing that. Never. I was already training well." Yet the pressures mounted in her first season as she came to see the underbelly (and back acne) of a sport which is measured in the tiniest increments of time, where the twitch of one muscle can mean the difference between gold medals and not even starting...

 

As the aforementioned Norwegian physicists can attest, there is real science behind what happens when a sprinter explodes from the starting blocks. And just as a coach can teach the tactics of a given sport, so too are there people who can teach how the body-chemistry side of sport can be manipulated for positive effect. Not every athlete can be or wishes to be a Jose Canseco, both Frankenstein and monster. Soon after moving across the country to work with Korchemny, White was approached. "I'm going to introduce you to someone who knows more about the science side of track and field. I can only do the coaching," White recalls Korchemny telling her. "There's a little bit more that you need."

 

With that, White found herself face to face with Victor Conte. Soon she was under a regimen of products which she assumed were all legal. A few weeks later, Conte confronted her to inform her the "flaxseed oil" she was taking under her tongue was actually the designer steroid THG. It was then that she learned she could test positive if she didn't follow protocol to the letter. She wanted to turn down the drug; but in the insular world of the track, getting into an elite program like Korchemny's is a rarity, especially for someone with such a mediocre career to date. So she kept accepting the free packages -- and stockpiling the unused THG at home...

 

But that inevitable injury would eventually strike White. After a stellar sophomore season, which saw the young sprinter take bronze at the 2001 World Championships in the 200-meter dash, White tore a muscle in her foot in her third season which saw her sitting out races. After her rehabilitation, she was still an unproven commodity on the circuit, failing to gain entry to invitational races throughout 2003.

 

After trying and failing to gain a spot on the U.S. squad for the World Indoor Championships, White reached her breaking point. "It was crossing a huge line. But I was in a low place, so disappointed, and I bought into it. On the way back on the plane, talking to my coach, we said, 'Okay. Next stop is BALCO. Were going to talk to Victor. Something's gotta be done.'"

 

Nothing more simple than someone seeking the latest advancements in medicine to cure an injury. Who among us wouldn't seek the best medical help possible, every remedy out there to get back to our career as quickly as possible? For a society which has been indoctrinated to the flood of commercials advertising the latest cure to erect a flagging phallus or acid-reflux caused by our unhealthy food choices or allergies bred by our misuse of previous medications, a pill can be a cure-all... an injection can mean the difference between health and infirmity.

 

So she started a regimen which skyrocketed her career. Marion Jones can come contrite on Oprah, reversing her words and deceiving the media maven in a manner deserving a Frey-xposion, yet the reality remains that her career was assisted by THG and the other chemical cocktails from the BALCO bartenders. The difference between Jones and White is that one is contrite about her mistakes. Enduring the pain of EPO injections and the moral dilemma of her usage, White quickly transformed into one of the top five female sprinters in the world -- all the while feeling the stings of her choice.

 

And it is a hell of a pain to bear. White said of her injections, "It wasn't even the needle going in. The actual injection itself burned like crazy. You had to brace yourself for it. You're sitting there panting. But if you break the cycle, you have to start from square one. So I was like, I've got to do this." Another bleached corpse to stack in the closet...

 

Anyone who has taken a shot of whiskey knows that the first one burns as it goes down the gullet. Smokers understand the searing sensation which strikes the lungs with each puff. The decisions made by athletes are ones with which they must live for an eternity. From the East German swimmers of the 1970s to the Lyle Alzados of the era, the choice to use taxes the body in way it was never meant to be taxed...

 

White was soon running at a pace wholly unexplained by her previous body of work. Just two months after beginning her full-blown BALCO regimen, she showed up at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon. Staged annually at Hayward Field, the spiritual home of track and field in the United States, the Prefontaine Classic is one of the most prestigious events on the track and field calendar. Named after fallen Eugene track star Steve Prefontaine, the meet draws the cream of the athletics crop to the Willamette Valley every May to pit their skills at the start of the season. White came to this meet in 2003 and put in a head-scratching performance. She turned in a 10.96 in the women's 100-meters -- the fastest time of that year to date, and her personal best by more than two-tenths of a second.

 

Kelli was not slowing down, either. In a meet in Germany, she stumbled out of the blocks and spotted her competitors nearly ten meters -- in a 100-meter race -- and still blistered past to take the tape by five meters. On the track, the best compete against the best. It is an insular world where those in the know know all and those on the outside see sheer brilliance play out in mere seconds. "I felt like I was floating, like I wasn't even touching the track," White told journalist Joy Goodwin. "I was like the Bionic Woman. I was so in the zone, I literally could not hear a crowd. It kind of makes your heart pound. But I could listen to myself, and talk to myself, and say, 'I'm going to win.'" She racked up victories as her focus turned toward the nearing World Championships in August...

 


Those Championships, held in Paris -- the home of so much skepticism over the years as wave after wave of cyclists have disgraced their national race -- would prove the site of Kelli's greatest achivement and, thus hoisted to such heights, the starting point of her spiral down toward ignominy. Two days after her historic 100/200 sweep, White was shopping at Niketown in Paris when a fan approached her with a newspaper and a pen, requesting an autograph. This was no ordinary paper, though -- the front headline revealed to White, before any official IAAF or WADA protocol to inform the sprinter could be carried out, that she had been exposed as a cheat...

 

White initially fought the ruling, which was for modafinil -- a drug not listed on the banned list. Manufactured by Cephalon and sold under the proprietary name Provigil, modafinil is a stimulant which is used mainly in the treatment of narcolepsy. The drug increases the release of monoamines and also raises hypothalamic histamine levels. In essence, this promotes "wakefulness"... think, well, a Red Bull on steroids, more effective than amphetamines in that it does not divert mental focus in its distribution through the body. In conjunction with the rest of the undetected combination of concoctions in her body, the modafinil allowed White to train longer and more alertly as she simultaneously trained harder.

 

But once the lid blew off BALCO, and a hurdler unaffiliated with the Bay Area synthetic-sportsman cooperative also tested positive for modafinil, the journey was effectively over. By May 2004, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's case against White was strong enough to get her to accept a two-year ban and forfeiture of all results back to December 2000 -- despite having not a single positive test result for any banned substances. She cooperated with the investigation against BALCO. She deserted the track, another statistic cast aside in the fight against doping...

 

 ------------------------------------------------------

 

The problem is, we can cast aside the athlete and affix the asterisk to them all we want -- but when we do so, leaving our Cansecos and Whites and Hamiltons by the roadside, we neglect to deal with the underlying issues as to WHY an athlete would do such things. We crave the long ball, but don't want to know how those overgrown biceps were achieved to regularly belt 500-foot homers. We desire the classics rider who can also climb mountains on his bike, but don't want to know how his cardiovascular system can process all the oxygen necessary to do so. "Faster, higher, stronger" often seem to be the sole determinants driving our spectating morals.

 

Back in July, while the Tour de France waged on amidst the positive tests for the new-generation EPO strain CERA of, among others, Manuel Beltran and Riccardo Ricco, there was an article in the Eugene Register-Guard which caught my eye. It was a simple AP blurb on page C3 of the July 18 issue, written by Jamey Keaten. "With the competition reduced to an afterthought," Keaten quipped, "the Tour de France was rocked by another drug bust Thursday that left cycling's showpiece event all but synonymous with doping." As I wrote in my journal that day, The real problem is how the media portrays these busts. Cadel Evans, the Australian cyclist who at that point in time was wearing the yellow jersey, said it best when he argued, "Our sport is being crucified for doing the right thing."

 

Contrast that with the case of someone like Shawne Merriman, who tested positive before the 2006 season for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. His form of doping had no less profound a result on his performance than did the CERA usage of Beltran or Ricco; yet while both cyclists serve two-year bans for their indiscretion, Merriman was back with the San Diego Chargers after four games and winning a slot in the Pro Bowl. We glorify Merriman while we villify those like White or Ricco or the countless others who have made the same mistake.

 

Why do we selectively cast our ire? Why do some athletes provoke our scorn while other provoke our empathy? As Chuck Klosterman wrote for ESPN on 21 March 2007, "The public knows the truth, or at least part of it. And knowing this partial truth, the public will return to ignoring this conundrum almost entirely." Those sports which are near and dear to the American consciousness -- football, baseball, and to a lesser extent basketball and hockey -- engender free passes from fans. Those sports which seem distant (even though, for many people, the chance to see a bicycle race may be nearer than seeing an NBA contest) are automatically treated as the whipping posts for the phenomenon that is doping.

 

Perhaps, in the end, it was Kelli White herself who best explained our paradox as sports fans: "My whole issue is that I don't want to see a terrible race. I don't want to see girls at the Olympics running 11.2 [second 100-meter races]. And I don't think anybody else wants to see it either. People watch the men's 100 to see if the world record will be broken that day. If those men start running a half-second slower than the world record, no one's gonna watch. I guess it's kind of bad to say, but it is what it is. It can be done clean. But honestly, we're not going to see such a great show."

 

Because our sports fanaticism naturally gears us to compare the greats of today with the greats of yesteryear, we automatically demand improvement from generation to generation. The human physique can only go so far alone. A truly innovative technology like Speedo's LZR Racer comes along but once in a generation; training and nutrition have become finite resources, ekeing every last ounce of potential out of athletes. So where do we go from here?

 

We can come to grips with the reality that our athletes have, in most every field and every manner possible, found methods which artificially enhance their potential to set the records we so desire. Or, conversely, we can sincerely crack down on doping and accept that some records will likely stand for eternity. But for anyone who follows most any athletic endeavor -- hell, we've had recent busts on sumo wrestlers! -- the risk will always be present that today's hero will be tomorrow's goat. That is the internal conflict with which every sports fan must live at one point or another, the paradox swirling through our cerebral vortex...

 

 

 

 

Bigalke is a freelance journalist who has been writing for FanNation since December 2007. An archive of Bigalke's writing for FanNation can be found here. He is also is a contributing writer at Helium. Got something to say to Bigalke -- questions, comments, suggestions, derision to sling, vengeance to exact, commendations to render, or contracts to offer? You can reach Bigalke through FanMail, the comments box below or here...

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