Why this matters
The current pause on competition presents an opportunity to make sports clean. Illegal performance enhancing drug use has negatively impacted athletes and fans' trust in the game. Jeff Burtka joins The Huddle to discuss how sport can come back as clean as ever.
In 2006, Lance Armstrong ran in the New York Marathon. For the first 10 miles of the race, Alberto Salazar ran as his pacesetter.
Once examples of impressive athletic achievement, Armstrong and Salazar are now associated with the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Armstrong infamously confessed to Oprah that he had used PEDs throughout his career. Salazar was served a four year ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency when it was revealed that he violated standards as the coach of the Nike Oregon Project. He came under additional fire following Mary Cain’s New York Times op-ed in which the elite runner described Salazar’s abusive coaching practices.
In his GSM article, "Athletes push for brands and competitors to commit to clean sport," Jeff Burtka discusses how the current pause on sport may be an opportunity to ensure a clean return to sport.
“If people could see their athletes as being clean and see that their athletes aren’t using performance enhancing drugs, the people can believe in sport more,” says Burtka.
In a recent poll conducted by the Global Sport Institute, 82% of respondents believed many professional athletes used illegal PEDs. It’s not a shock considering the mistrust between fans and athletes following doping scandals. Burtka recalls Ben Johnson's performance at the 1988 Olympics and says, “It was crushing to see that something that impressive wasn’t real.”
Burtka mentions that the continuation of illegal PED use is caused by a variety of factors including pressure from home countries, coaches, and sponsors. The latter are in a unique position of power. He mentions that an Olympian that gets a fourth place finish will not see as many endorsement dollars as their higher scoring competitors. This may be a motivator for athletes to use illegal PEDs, but it is also one of the incredibly unfair consequences faced by those who lose to competitors who are not playing clean.
Sometimes brands and sponsors are the greatest enablers of PED use. “As long as the money keeps rolling in, they’re not going to question whether someone like Alberto Salazar is doing something improper. At least historically,” Burtka says. “When someone gets caught that’s when the brand may or may not cut ties with them. They don’t always cut those ties.”
The Clean Sport Collective aims to keep athletes and corporations accountable and fair. Major brands like Nike have not signed the committee’s pledge. Burtka says that while the pledge can’t immediately eradicate doping, it can discourage and reduce its frequency.
Even though sport is on hold, anti-doping agencies are still pushing forward in the movement to end illegal PED use. Burtka says that while some WADA sites have stopped operations, there is still testing designated for athletes who are currently participating in sport or are planning on competing in the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
“Part of the reason they’re continuing to do the testing is to give fans a peace of mind that these athletes are clean,” he says. “It’s not necessarily to catch them so much as that when the next Olympics or big international competition rolls around that these American athletes have still been tested and they’re still clean.”
Sport needs to be truthful for the sake of fans, athletes, and future generations. Doping must end, but it will require a unified and dedicated effort from all entities involved in the world of sport and health.
COVID-19 is the rival no one in sport could game plan for. As many live events remain at a standstill and the world keeps adapting, how is sport resetting upon its staggered returns?