August 13, 2004

We Runners Finally Get Press For The Wrong Reasons

By Adrian Avila

I run the 800 meters for my college, so the Olympics are like Christmas for me. It’s the one time that my under-watched sport gets some respect. But this year, the attention tastes bittersweet. Drug scandals are tainting my sport’s key moment.

I was glued to the television during the U.S. Olympic trials held in Sacramento. But even the post-race interviews seemed to be more about drug scandals dogging certain athletes than about those competitors’ accomplishments. And I see that the few times track gets the cover story of the sports section, the headline usually starts with “Balco.”

The Balco drug scandal, which is implicating athletes in several sports including track, has five of the U.S. top runners facing possible doping bans. The list includes world 100 meter record holder Tim Montgomery, who failed to make the Olympic team in the 100 meter trials, as well as 2000 Olympic 400 meter silver medalist Alvin Harrison, and Regina Jacobs.

The 800 meters is my life. I started running this complex race, which many consider the most tough-minded race in track, about five years ago. The feeling I get from stepping out on the track with seven other runners cannot be matched. Although I train year-round, mile after mile, the outcome of my race is not always what I wish for. But even with all of the hard work, I have never felt the pressure to take drugs. When I heard about all these Olympians possibly using, I felt like the sport I had known as a pure one was being compromised. Track was becoming another typical American sport — a drug-driven competition.

I’m used to track being sidelined. Most of the buzz is usually dominated by basketball or football. Even in high school, the only time track ever gets any attention is when a football star runs — to keep in shape for the next season. I’d always get the same question: “Why run in circles, for nothing?” Yet people never stop and think about the point of running from one side of the field to another with a leather ball. A runner uses only his or her own body to reach speeds that not too many people can attain. It’s beautiful, inspiring even, and displays human capacity at its best. Drugs ruin the spirit of the sport.

One has to wonder how much runners are being affected by all of this, mentally. Marion Jones, who denies ever taking performance-enhancing drugs, is still the subject of an investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Her ex-husband, also an athlete, is now saying that he helped her use drugs. Although she is the top woman on the U.S. Olympic team, she will compete in only one event, the long jump, instead of three.

I have to admit, there is a small part of me that hopes the scandal may be good in the long run, because at least track is getting some coverage for a change. But I don’t want track to get this reputation as a sport where all the athletes are doped up. Other sports such as football, where a good number of the athletes have admitted to using, have drugs woven into the game. Use of performance-enhancing drugs is practically expected, from the pros on down to high school.

I wonder where my sport will be 10 years from now, and how people will see it. What I know for sure is that I will still sit in front of the television with excitement and joy when the gun goes off, as eight runners compete to be the world’s best.

Adrian Avila, 19, writes for Silicon Valley De-Bug (, a publication by young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.

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