Track and Field

Doping issues, missing stars cloud World Track and Field Championships

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The World Track and Field Championships are often considered more exciting to track nuts than the Olympics. They’re nine days where running, jumping and throwing are alone front and center, but the normal competitive storylines are shadowed by shame this year.

The doping issue is back in track and field, as if it ever left. The last two months produced a slew of drug-testing headlines, conjuring the frenzy of the BALCO scandal of the early- to mid-2000s.

It blew up on a Sunday morning in July, when it was revealed U.S. sprint champion Tyson Gay told The Associated Press in a teary telephone interview that he had been notified he failed a drug test in May.

Many in the track community were surprised and disappointed. Even once-every-four-years track fans surely rolled eyes. Here we go again. (It didn’t help that Gay’s admission came during the middle of the Tour de France, and cycling’s doping problems are second to none.)

A third, ominous reaction came from a few track insiders. This is only the beginning.

World Track and Field Championships broadcast schedule

That same afternoon, more reported failed drug tests, this time out of the sprinting hotbed of Jamaica. Asafa Powell, the world’s fastest man before Usain Bolt came along, and Sherone Simpson, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the women’s 100 meters, tested positive for a banned stimulant at their national championships the month before. This came a month after Jamaica’s most decorated active sprinter, Veronica Campbell-Brown, failed a test.

The World Championships begin Saturday in Moscow. The usual pre-meet questions from reporters — How’s the season going? What’s the motivation a year after the Olympics? — are coupled with the cloud of doping. Can record performances be trusted? Does track and field have a black eye?

The man who carries the sport, Usain Bolt, has said “it’s going to set us back a bit,” and that he’s now competing not just for himself but also to “help people forget what has happened.” Bolt runs 100-meter heats Saturday and the semifinals and finals Sunday. Of course, he’s not the only disappointed champion.

“It sucks for the sport,” Olympic decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton said. “It really hurts it.”

Eaton said he gets his track and field news like many fans, by going online to the various track-specific websites.

“I read the articles, you know,” he said when asked about his reaction to Gay and Powell’s positives. “Oh really, that happened? Come on. … I was really, really surprised.”

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Should he have been? Track’s history is littered with cheating, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones, runners and throwers, Americans and Europeans.

“It doesn’t matter who it is, you’re always disappointed when it’s a positive test,” said Olympic and world 200-meter champion Allyson Felix, who entered the sport at the tail end of Jones’ career. “I love track and field and have a passion for it. Seeing it in a negative light, it’s really sad and frustrating. That was my initial feeling. On the other side, I was happy that the drug testing is working. It’s doing it’s job. That was kind of the only positive thing to take from this.”

Felix eyes 200 in Moscow, 400 later

Awareness is another takeaway. Gay said, “I basically put my trust in someone and I was let down.” A trainer for Powell and Simpson was blamed, though that’s turned into a back-and-forth argument.

“I think athletes always have to watch what they’re consuming because at end of the day they’re accountable for what they put in their body, even if they trust someone,” said Aries Merritt, the world record holder and Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles. “You have to be held accountable. It’s difficult to say that it’s someone (else’s) fault.”

Nowhere have performance-enhancing drugs been more widespread (that we know of) than in Turkey, where more than 30 athletes were recently banned, including teenagers. British marathon legend Paula Radcliffe likened it to child abuse.

Nick Symmonds, the outspoken U.S. 800-meter runner, is glad no stars from his event have been caught. But he knows the reality, that you can’t be sure all of your competitors are clean.

Symmonds said he would be “devastated” if a rival in the 800 tested positive.

“The system in place is catching cheats,” Symmonds said, “but it doesn’t do a good enough job of catching all the cheaters out there. It’s a cat and mouse game.”

There is no easy solution to clean up the sport. Track and field’s international governing body, the IAAF, wants to increase bans for first-time serious doping offenses from two years to four years. Basically, if you get caught, you must miss an Olympics.

The number of athletes missing from the World Championships is startling. The doping-related absences of Gay and Campbell-Brown are compounded by an out-of-control list of injuries — Jessica Ennis-HillYohan BlakeDavid Rudisha and others. Name the 10 most recognizable track and field athletes in the world, and it’s likely at least six or seven aren’t going to be suiting up at Luzhniki Stadium.

The two days before the start of competition saw the U.S. champion in the women’s 1,500, already in Moscow, withdraw with an injury. So, too, did the bronze medalist in the event at the Olympics, joining the gold and silver medalist on the sideline.

No event is safe. Two Russian Olympic race walking champions reportedly pulled out Friday.

“The more it’s getting closer to competition, the more I’m not really surprised,” Eaton said. “My coach has been saying people after the Olympic year, they’re drained, they’re hurt. My training this year, as it’s going, I’m more tired, I’m getting more dings. That motivation is hard.”

If there’s a silver lining, and track and field could use any life preserver these days, it’s that medals will still be awarded. Through the gloom, the sport must go on.

“There are others who are stepping up to the plate,” Merritt said. “It’s giving the youth the opportunity to shine as well.”

IAAF moves forward with 4-year doping bans plan

More Olympic distance-running medalists banned for doping

Gamze Bulut
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MONACO (AP) — Turkish runner Elvan Abeylegesse has been banned for doping and stands to lose two Olympic silver medals.

The IAAF says Abeylegesse tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol in a retest of a sample she gave at the 2007 World Championships.

She has been banned for two years and had her results wiped out from 2007-09.

Abeylegesse won Olympic silver medals in the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2008 Beijing Games and silver in the 10,000m at the 2007 world championships.

The IAAF also said it had imposed a four-year ban on another Turkish runner, Gamze Bulut, for a violation of its biological passport program. Bulut won 1500m silver at the 2012 London Olympics.

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Maria Sharapova not fully committed to 2020 Olympic run

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The rumors and reports have been out for months, but asked directly, Maria Sharapova wasn’t immediately quite sure how to answer when asked about going for the 2020 Olympics.

“Ooh, I don’t, umm,” Sharapova said, laughing lightly, sitting across from retired U.S. Olympic soccer champion Julia Foudy at a conference in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Tuesday (video here). “It’s a question I’ve been asked, and I’d love to sit here today and say yes, in three-so years that is where I want to be. But it’s hard. It’s hard to look that far, also being a woman that’s also [turning] 30 years [old in three weeks]. I want to have a family. I want to be a mother. Those are definitely long-term goals of mine. But of course to compete in another Olympics, that’s an athlete’s dream. I’d love to be a part of that.”

Sharapova is set to return from her 15-month meldonium ban next month. What stings the most about her suspension?

“Something was taken away from you that you’ve done so passionately since you were a little girl,” she said. “Although I’m at a stage and an age in my career and in my life where you’re closer to the end than you are to the beginning, you always want to end your career or a chapter in your life on your terms and in your voice. And to be in a moment where you feel or you felt like it could have ended on someone else’s voice and someone else’s terms was very difficult to accept. That’s why I fought so hard for the truth to be out. You don’t realize how much you love something and how much something it means to you until you lose it for some time. It gave me a chance also to live.”

Sharapova joked about going to Coachella last year.

“There’s 120,000 people doing drugs that I’m not aware of?” she said, laughing. “And completely being out of my element. I was like, OK? … I’m skipping Coachella this year, because I got my day-job back.”

The fans’ reaction when she gets back on the competition courts?

“I don’t know if there’s much that I can control,” she said.

Earlier this month, her agent reportedly said he thought that Sharapova will play through the 2020 Tokyo Games if healthy.

Sharapova will be 33 years old come the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, two years older than any previous Russian Olympic tennis player. She will likely have to be ranked among the top four Russians in the world in spring 2020 to qualify for the Games outright.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said Tuesday. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility.

One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

Two women’s players, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams, have achieved the singles career Golden Slam — winning all four majors and the Olympics. Sharapova, beaten by Williams 6-0, 6-1 in the London 2012 final, is a Tokyo title away from joining them.

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