—by Red Shannon
Second-guessing history can be a fool’s pursuit. Certainly, no amount of hindsight will change its outcome. But if we can analyze history’s twists and turns, and determine the factors that changed its course, perhaps the lessons of the past can actually affect the unfolding of the future. In that spirit, I look at five critical landmarks that defined the course of track and field and shaped it into the sport as we know it today. Questioning how things might have been different, I dare to ask “What if . . ?“.
1. The Olympic Boycotts of 1980 and 1984
The former Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States were the definitive powerhouses of track and field for most of the latter half of the 20th century. The popular USA vs USSR dual meet series ( 1958—1985 ) exemplified the intense rivalry between the two nations, both in the political sphere and in the arena of sports.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1980, U.S. president Jimmy Carter used a threatened boycott of the Moscow Summer Games in an attempt to convince the USSR to withdraw. The Soviets refused and the Americans, along with a handful of allies, followed through with the boycott.
When the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics rolled around, the Eastern Bloc nations got payback through their own boycott. While Carter’s action may have had some misguided justification based purely on political grounds, the Soviet Union’s counter move in 1984 was clearly one of blatant retribution.
In both cases, the forced stand-down by the respective heads of state had near zero political effect and regrettably, the athletes and fans of Olympic sports were the biggest losers. I’m of the opinion that the boycotts, and their long-lasting aftertaste, marked the beginning of track and field’s downward slide in terms of popularity among casual sports fans and in preferential treatment on the sports pages.
In a time when televised international sports (in living color) was beginning to blossom and the wall of secrecy between East and West was just beginning to crack, it seemed an optimal time for athletics to soar to new heights. Unfortunately, it was also the worst time to call for a boycott, and at the stroke of Carter’s pen, what is now known as the heyday of track and field took the first slippery steps toward its decline.
What if both world powers had shunned politics in favor of allowing sport do the thing it does best—settle differences on the field of play, which usually culminates in a handshake or a hug?
2. Light Penalties for Convicted Drug Cheats
At the entrance to the ancient Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece there stood a gauntlet of stone pedestals the athletes were required to pass through as they entered the stadium’s tunnel. On each pedestal the likeness of a former competitor, along with his family members’ names was engraved for all to see, as a reminder for all eternity.
Those granite athletes were not feted as victorious champions. They were cheaters who had been caught in the web of their own chosen method of performance enhancement. In that day bribery, intimidation, assault and simple herbal recipes were the preferred forms of cheating. As punishment, along with the obvious personal sting of the “gauntlet of shame”, the offenders were banished from competition for life.
By the mid-20th century the stigma of cheating in sports was not so deep-rooted. In the 1960s, the growing practice of chemically-induced performance enhancement was so widespread it was openly used with little consequence—even celebrated. Only when its life-threatening side effects became known did it arouse concern.
Eventually, in an apparent act of new-found conscience, the governing body of track and field (IAAF) instituted testing and sanctions to curb the rampant culture of sports doping. Other sports bodies and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) followed suit.
A standard two-year ban and the relinquishing of medals and titles by convicted drug cheats was a punishment much too little and too late. In 2015, a possible four-year ban (depending on circumstances) was implemented to raise the stakes even higher for potential short-cutters. Sadly, the sports headlines related to drug scandal are today still just as prevalent as those for achievement.
The obvious next step in punishment is lifetime bans for proven intentional doping yet the relevant governing bodies cannot bring themselves to accept that threshold based on a perceived cultural taboo against violating an offender’s rights. Ironically, they stop short of enacting the one measure with a sufficient deterrence factor to actually do some good.
The various federations’ reluctance to take that next step may be a moot point if current research at the University of Oslo reaches the most probable conclusion in its study: that performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), once they are introduced into the human body, have a permanent performance enhancing effect—even long after the benefiting agent is withdrawn.
That study’s driving force, Prof. Kristian Gundersen, seems convinced the proof found in preliminary research with mice will transfer correspondingly to human testing. From an October, 2014 article by Tom Fordyce of BBC Sport:
“I would be very surprised if there were any major differences between humans and mice in this context.
“The fundamental biology of muscle growth is similar in humans and in mice, and in principle any drug that builds muscle mass could trigger this mechanism.
“I was excited by the clarity of the findings. It’s very rare, at least in my experience, that the data are so clear cut; there is usually some disturbing factor. But in this case it was extremely clear.
“If you exercise, or take anabolic steroids, you get more nuclei and you get bigger muscles. If you take away the steroids, you lose the muscle mass, but the nuclei remain inside the muscle fibres”[*ready to reactivate when exercise resumes].
*implied in article
Such a finding would immediately have the effect of disqualifying any past or current proven drug offender from sanctioned competition for life. The recovery from the resulting decimation of the sport of track and field would take years, not months. But sometimes, drastic surgery is necessary in order to save the patient.
What if the IAAF or IOC had stepped in much earlier with youth awareness, education, testing and extreme measures (lifetime bans) in an era when the rights of innocent victims (clean athletes) carried at least as much weight as the rights of the perpetrators? Early prevention is always better than a late cure.
3. IAAF Boss Lamine Diack Goes Unchallenged in 2011
In May of 2011, I asked in a Bleacher Report piece why Lamine Diack’s corrupt regime was apparently going to get another four years to further taint the sport without so much as a speed bump of resistance.
Diack mercifully vacated his position in 2015 but not before unleashing one of the most unethical tenures in the history of the IAAF, including two controversial influence-peddling allegations related to the site selections of the 2019 and 2021 World Outdoor Championships.
The Diack family and some of his inner circle are even now under investigation for money laundering, drug coverups and other ethics violations.
The two candidates who vied for his vacant seat, former track and field greats Sebastian Coe and Sergey Bubka, were both available in 2011 but chose not to challenge Diack at that time. Coe presumably opted out in order to oversee the organization of the London Olympics in 2012. In an ironic twist, it has recently come to light that Coe presided over a London Summer Games now being labeled as “unprecedented” in terms of doped performances.
And now Lord Coe, who did eventually win the IAAF’s top spot in 2015, finds himself up to his neck in a sport besieged with scandal. What if someone—anyone—with the qualifications, ethics and love of the sport had stepped up in 2011 to wrest the levers of power from Diack’s runaway train? Instead of Coe now having to spend months bringing that train under control, we might otherwise be comfortably rolling down the tracks to the World Championships in London ’17.
4. U.S. Defies Move to Go Metric
During the 1970s, those of us alive at the time were told to prepare for a global movement to standardize weights and measures to the metric system. It was a hard sell in the United States due to a collective stubborn streak fostered in the early days of America’s independence from Great Britain.
The movement had some initial success, primarily in the medical, science and manufacturing sectors. And by virtue of its international footprint, track and field was one of the first sports to convert. The common American sports fan, however, would not yield to the pressure, unable to imagine a football or baseball game being played on a metric field.
In time, hardcore track fans became accustomed to making the mental conversion from imperial length and height measurements to metric. But the casual fan was lost without a conversion chart, and could not comprehend a 6.0 meter pole vault or an 89.0 meter javelin toss, much less a 5kg iron ball.
This mental disconnect has inhibited, if even in a small way, the attraction of new fans to the sport. The world’s simplest and purest sport has one tiny flaw when its least informed spectators can know who won but not “how high?” or “how far?”.
In a sport where distance and height (along with elapsed time) are the primary components in determining winners, the eventual total conversion to the metric system cannot come soon enough. Announcers, reporters and on-field reader boards actually do a good job of providing both the imperial and metric equivalence for now, but until education (or attrition) eradicates the old ways in our sport, it’s a glitch we’ll have to live with.
There really is no “What if . . ?” answer to this problem unless it would be to mandate a metric converter as standard equipment on every new smartphone.
5. Two of Track & Field’s Iconic Figures Fail to Meet
Pavarotti performed at Carnegie Hall. Secretariat raced at Churchill Downs. But in one of the sport’s most tragic marketing fails, Usain Bolt never once competed at Hayward Field.
Please. No arguments about clashing shoe contracts, conflicting seasonal windows of opportunity or the Oregon income tax laws. It should have happened but it never did and it’s a crying shame that not one person has ever witnessed the decade’s signature athlete run on one the world’s most hallowed and fastest tracks with the benefit and aid of the legendary Hayward magic.
The most practical and probable occasion would have been the annual Prefontaine Classic meet, a Diamond League stop in early summer that is almost exclusively rated the top single-day invitational meet in the world. But it could have just as easily been a twilight meet or simply an all-comers meet. Lesser invitationals than the Pre have produced world records at Hayward. The point is, it could have happened but no one ever made it happen.
The good news is: someone can still make it happen, but time is short. What if someone did?
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