Sunday, 6 August 2017

Marita Koch and Justin Gaitlin - how athletics fails its fans

Like a lot of sports fans I've taken an interest in the ongoing debate across many sports about the use of performance enhancing drugs. I'm not an expert any more than most fans are experts and there's perhaps a need for a broader discussion about the role of drugs in sport. But in the meantime just about every sport has to deal with the problem.

And it matters. It matters because rules matter. Without rules sport changes as an entertainment losing much of what sets it apart from sports-like entertainments such as 'professional wrestling' that are simply well-choreographed shows. The reason rules matter is usually presented as being for the competitors but I see them rather as protecting the sport by ensuring that fans consider the spectacle they pay to watch is fair. So it matters that the rules exist and it matters that those rules are enforced.

Some readers will be old enough to remember Marita Koch and the systematic cheating by the then East Germany:
I am haunted by the photo of East German sprinter Marita Koch smiling in the midst of a group of young fans. The photo was taken in 1986 when Koch was 29 years old and just ten months removed from the most astonishing performance of her long, illustrious career, a world record 47.60 for 400m in which she split 22.4 for 200m and 34.1 for 300m. Since she ran that time almost 30 years ago, only one other woman has come within a second of the record. Even more astounding, only four other women have even broken 49 seconds. It’s as if that 47.60 came from another world, and in a sense it did.
The problem is that athletics can't come to terms with this historic doping - despite plenty of evidence showing how East German athletes were systematically doped in a state-run programme, the international body for athletics, the IAAF, included Marita Koch in its 'Hall of Fame'.

Zoom forward thirty years and we come to the case of Justin Gaitlin - twice the recipient of a ban for using drugs (he either denies or wriggles mightily about both accusations but then so does Marita Koch), Gaitlin has just won the World Championship 100m defeating the freak of nature that is Usain Bolt. My response, like thousands of other athletics fans, was instant - "drugs cheat" we cried, angry that the marvellous thing that is Usain Bolt lost to such a man. Paul Hayward at the Daily Telegraph described the moment Gaitlin received his medal:
Halfway between a cheer and a jeer is an uncomfortable groan - the sort of awkward sound British people make when they would really rather just change the subject. This is noise the London crowd made when Justin Gatlin, who has served two doping bans, stooped to receive his 100m World Championship gold medal...
Others were less kind and called the crowd's response 'boo-ing'. Now I don't know how I'd have responded but I would have found it very difficult to cheer one of the living embodiments of the abject failure of athletics to deal effectively (or at all, some would say) with the persistence of drug cheats in the sport. The unfairness here isn't that the crowd boo-ed but that we - the fans - believe our sport is being corrupted by the greed and vainglory of its governors, some of its competitors and too many officials of national or international bodies.

And the important point here - one that can't be stressed too much or too often - is that sport doesn't belong to players, to officials or to international institutions. Sport belongs to the fans. Without people paying a lot of money to go and watch eight men race, you haven't got a sport. Without fans Usain Bold couldn't earn $33m. And Justin Gaitlin wouldn't be worth more than $6m. The money is in sport because us fans pay to watch and sponsors pay stars to put their brand in front of us fans while we're watching.

And this is why we get angry when competitors cheat. Not just because they're getting lots of money through that cheating but also because by doing so the cheat undermines the integrity of the sport and makes the game unfair. It may be that Gaitlin is redeemed and is now clean and honest (only time and drug tests will tell) but for many fans he's still the cheat who got away with it. Gaitlin is the poster boy of athletics' two-faced attitude to drugs - running the testing and administering bans but then creating a Hall of Fame filled with athletes from the old 'Eastern Bloc' where systematic, state-administered doping programmes are a well-documented fact.

If athletics - and especially the 'blue riband' events like the 100m - wants to avoid ending up like WWE this hypocrisy has to end.



wiggiatlarge said...

"Sport belongs to the fans."
Sadly it hasn't for many years, in the states where there is at this moment in time much worrying as track and field goes down the drain as a spectator sport it would appear Nike run the thing to a large degree.

As for Gatlin now being "clean" that theory was putt to rest some time ago as the residual effects of his doping still give him an edge.

But it is the mealy mouthed inadequencies of the IAAF and the oily Lord Coe that put all in perspective with their hand wringing "he is eligible, there is no more we can do" attitude where the problem really lies.
And as an ex racing cyclist I know full well what doping can do to the sport.

Anonymous said...

The only difference between Gatlin and most of the rest is that he got caught marginally on the wrong side of an arbitrary limit at a moment in time.

Whenever any professional athlete-entertainer falls foul of the testing system, the rest will exude a sigh of relief and think "There but for the grace . . . . maybe next time . . . ."

It's a professional entertainment business, not a sport, if the audience demands that human bodies perform ever-greater feats of pointless athleticism, then ever-smarter pharmaceuticals will be there to help deliver the results that the paying punters require the promoters to provide.
"Follow the money", as 'Deep Throat' once so wisely advised with Watergate.