Suspicious Mind

Aug 13, 2015

A no-names attempt to understand when it’s fair to suspect doping… 

The outrage is inevitable. Arm yourself with all the red flags you like, if you’re going to speak up and start pointing fingers at potential cheaters, you’re courting trouble. That’s the life cycle of these things, don’t pretend you weren’t warned.

Yet the outrage goes both ways. You can’t watch certain achievements, hear the chatter, witness the apparent signs, and keep quiet. That old Edmund Burke quote whispers to you like a priest behind the confessional: The only thing necessary for the spread of evil is for good men to do nothing… So, you say something. And then, here comes the anonymous impotent army of raging commenters, the keyboard cops howling at you to take it back. You knew it was coming.

Consider this a thoughtful step back. No names, no insinuations, just a series of factors that might help us answer this question: When is it fair to suspect an athlete of doping?

When an athlete goes incredibly fast, full stop… Records are shattered, minds are blown. For many nowadays that’s enough to suspect, end of story. It’s a cynical and fatalist way of looking at sport, but not without reason. This story was sparked by a debate I had with my business partner, Lars, as the World Champs were concluding. His point: If we’re all fairly certain that doping is prevalent and may exist within every final, then it only stands to reason that we must suspect the fastest of the fast. That point of view dismayed me. I’m not sure I could enjoy watching sports any longer if every great performance came with a mindful, doubting asterisk. I tried to point out that clean athletes beat doped athletes every day. Doping isn’t a magic pill to dominance, merely a means to work harder and recover faster and give yourself an unnatural edge. The playing field is never level, whether we’re talking about talent or genetics or geography or opportunity – or illicit means. A swimmer born of two athletic parents, well off and living in a hot bed of swimming, with world class coaching available down the road and a rich tradition of aquatic excellence all around him – like say so many swimmers in Southern California – these athletes have a built-in advantage over countless competitors worldwide that has nothing to do with doping. It’s not fair, in the broad life sense, and doping often helps others close that gap, but so much more goes into record-shattering performances. I can understand the fatalism that makes some doubt every incredible swim, but swimming very fast in and of itself is not enough to cast suspicions.

When athletes are from a country with a dubious doping past… Positive tests aside, this one depends a lot on where you’re from. Said Lars: “The Europeans all suspect the Americans and the Americans all suspect the Euros, and everyone just rolls their eyes at the Russians and the Chinese.” That take may be unfair to athletes from a host of countries, but it’s not without merit. And like every stereotype, it has its roots in some truth. Our bias stems from where we live, who we listen to; we might think we’re being objective in our opinions, but so do the folks across an ocean who may want to tear your head off for your geographically-bound opinion. It’s well established that Russia and China are rather dubious these days, in terms of their recent doping past, however arguments can be made on both sides of the pond that the U.S. and plenty of countries in Europe have a less than spotless record when it comes to doping.

When past positive tests are dismissed… The sad fact is that those who fail a drug test often aren’t the ones cheating, and that those doping don’t worry for a moment about the drug testers. Nonetheless, one positive result – whether it’s for pot or Adderall or an undocumented inhaler – is enough for many to decide that an athlete must be dirty. No amount of context or reasoned defense with ever change certain minds. Positive test equals cheater, game over. I don’t believe that, there have been too many cases to prove otherwise, but again that’s enough for some.

When there is an abnormal rate of improvement… Again, a subjective standard. What’s abnormal to you could be explained by any number of factors, many of which are never publicized. Say a brilliantly talented athlete privately struggled with depression for years. Never got the help he needed, and kept underachieving at the big meets. Then a diagnosis and some mind meds help turn him around. Huge drops in time seem to come out of nowhere. It’s happened before. Or perhaps you just trained like a blind dunce for years, piling up the garbage yardage and never putting in the work you needed. Sometimes swimmers don’t figure out what their body truly needs until well after college – and late blooming drops appear. Then again, huge drops in your mid to late twenties can leave many scratching their heads. Rates of improvement, past a certain age, may be the single biggest signpost in the search for suspicious activity. We all expect teenagers to have those massive drops as their bodies develop and they become fully realized humans. But many are left wondering about illicit means when those fully developed athletes suddenly become super human and drop times that shatter all statistical probability.

When the body changes shape… This one seems hard to deny. You can point to a renewed focus on weights or yoga or diet, but when bodies morph into rippling anatomy charts past a certain age, it’s hard not to suspect something’s going on. Still, take the example of the underachieving head case above and translate that to physical appearance. What if another talented athlete got by forever with a horrible diet, then discovered later than most that burgers and beer were less than effective to sustain energy and fuel peak performance? A body will change in a hurry with the right daily foods and an absence of booze. It doesn’t take doping to do it. So, yet another subjective standard that can be argued for innocence. Still, we’ve all seen bodies where you take one hard look and you feel like you just know.

When an athlete surrounds him or herself with a questionable circle…  Be it a coach, a spouse, a friend, a medial professional with a sketchy practice – the supporting characters that surround every athlete’s career must be taken into account if we’re talking about doping suspicions. In the same way that one’s friends are the best indicator of a person’s character, so it is with the inner circle around top athletes. We all have friends who might not be the best influence on us, and we love them for it. There are few greater mysteries than what makes a relationship click. You can’t indict someone for the second hand actions of his or her circle – but then again, if the folks you spend the most time with appear to come from the shady side of the street, is there some potential guilt by association?

There’s six considerations. There are probably more. I’d like to hear them. There are plenty of athletes out there – both on and off of podiums – who are cheating their sports, and every fellow competitor alongside of them by choosing dishonorable shortcuts to success. Maybe it’s out of a bitter defiant need to try to close the gap on others you’ve deemed unfairly talented, with more opportunity. Maybe it comes from the top of a country with a soulless, mercenary regard for its ‘diplomats in tracksuits.’ Maybe it’s driven by money, by a conscience-free hunger for success. Maybe the folks whispering in your ear have convinced you to strip away your ideals and sell your sporting soul. Or maybe you’ve just decided that everyone else must be doing it, so if you’re really committed to your goals, you’re left with little choice.

You’d be wrong about that. I’m convinced that the majority of athletes you see standing on podiums got there clean, with honor. Not all of them, but most. Maybe drug tests will catch a few, but it won’t be many. Which means this shadow of sport will continue to darken every competition – as we wonder who could be doping, and when it’s fair to cast those suspicions?