As Olympics Begin, ‘A War For The Soul Of Sport’ Is Raging

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Photo: Roger Pielke, Jr., founder of CU-Boulder's Sports Governance Center
Roger Pielke, Jr., founder of CU-Boulder's Sports Governance Center and author of "The Edge."

The Olympics start Friday and more than a hundred Russian athletes will not compete because of a doping scandal. It’s just the latest example of how players, even entire nations, try to gain an edge in sports.

Roger Pielke, Jr. asks a simple question in his forthcoming book “The Edge”: “Why are so many people breaking so many rules these days across sport?”

This year Pielke helped create The Sports Governance Center at CU-Boulder.

Photo: Cover Of The Edge

Read an excerpt:

The Spirit of Sport

The five fastest times in the 100 meters in 2015 belonged to Gatlin. In the most prominent 100-meter race of 2015, at the World Championships in Beijing, Gatlin was edged out by 0.01 of a second by Usain Bolt, the photogenic Jamaican sprinter. The media had built up the race as one between good and evil—Bolt, the athlete who had achieved his successes the right way, and Gatlin, the cheater. As Bolt edged Gatlin at the finish line, a BBC commentator gushed, “He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation—he may have even saved his sport.”

Despite the soaring rhetoric, no one accused Gatlin outright of achieving his current success by breaking the rules. But questions remain. Ross Tucker, a South African scientist and an expert in athletic performance, explains that “Gatlin is the problem that will not go away. . . . He is a former doper, dominating a historically doped event, while running faster than his previously doped self.” For his part, Gatlin is aware of the talk: “There’s nothing I can do,” he has said, “except go out there and keep running and pushing the envelope.”

I was curious about how unusual Gatlin’s performance is as a thirty-three-year-old man in 2015. Data can help us understand how Gatlin’s performances stand up in historical context, but data cannot adjudicate between good and evil.

To better understand Gatlin’s performance, the first thing I did was to gather data for the top sprinters ever at the 100 meters, and compare how their times progressed as they aged.

That chart is a bit noisy, but what it shows is how exceptional Gatlin’s improvement was from ages twenty-eight to thirty-three, achieving successive personal bests. Gatlin explains that his doping suspension may be the cause of his late form: “I’ve been away from the sport for four years—I literally didn’t run for four years, so my body’s been rested.” He does have a point, because moving his times four years to the left would make his curve much less unusual.

But Gatlin was not placed in a time capsule for four years. He aged like everyone else. If taking four years off from competition in the prime of a sprinter’s career is thought to lead to record-shattering times, then we’d probably see more athletes taking long breaks. But that seems doubtful, given that the best sprint times occurred between ages of twenty-two and twenty-seven for this set of athletes. Father time is unforgiving.

The top ten fastest male sprinters in the world stopped improving as a group by about age twenty-five. Gatlin’s times and improvement are, it is safe to say, unprecedented among this group of runners. 

The longer Gatlin scorches the track, the more his incredible feats and the questions that they raise will be discussed. The data clearly show that Gatlin has been doing something remarkable, maybe even incredible. Whether those achievements would have occurred without doping is another question altogether, and one that can’t be answered by looking at the numbers. In truth, the role of doping in sport can never be seen in performance numbers alone, no matter how remarkable they may seem. It is a sign of the times that incredible performances often evoke feelings of not just awe and appreciation but also doubt and cynicism.

Here is why Gatlin—and the issue of doping more generally—presents sport with a wicked problem. Seen from one perspective, Gatlin has achieved incredible sports performance and deserves to be recognized as an unprecedented champion, because of both his age and his performance. What he is accomplishing might, under different circumstances, be an example of the spirit of sport such as described in the discussion of high jumping: the exceeding of limits, the attention that results. Yet his history of doping means that he (and indeed everyone) is cheated from celebrating those successes.

Seen from another perspective, Gatlin’s successes have been achieved improperly; they are the consequence of him breaking the rules, serving his punishment, and then returning to benefit from his transgressions. From this point of view, Gatlin’s competitors (and indeed everyone) are being cheated. There are no easy answers here—in fact, as we will see in chapter 6, on doping, there are no solutions at all, only different ways to manage the challenge.

For instance, some people propose lifetime bans for athletes who dope, thus removing them from the equation in future competition. In this scenario, there would be no Justin Gatlins to worry about. However, the inherently imprecise nature of the science of anti-doping and the rights of athletes to due process mean that lifetime bans of this sort have been ruled impermissible. There is a movement afoot to criminalize doping violations—perhaps even to throw athletes into jail. Sports bodies have strongly objected to such laws, as they would create an uneven amalgam of laws around the world, which was the reason for the establishment of harmonized rules in the first place under WADA. Some people have proposed that former dopers should be able to race but not be able to hold records or win medals. This too is problematic—why have them race at all then?

Sprinting, a simple sport, becomes wickedly complex with the introduction of rules that regulate the use of performance-enhancing substances. As chapter 6 explains, there are no general solutions in response to the challenge of doping in sport. We (athletes, governments, sponsors, fans, etc.) negotiate rules to govern sport and then we must live with the consequences. If the rules are deemed unsatisfactory, we can change them. We can do better or worse, and the evidence suggests that, today, we are doing worse.

When Justin Gatlin became the personification of evil in sport in 2015, while achieving unprecedented success on the track, one thing he left in his wake was the spirit of sport. Some people complained that it was still there—with Gatlin performing remarkable athletic feats—but that it was being obscured, even suffocated, by rules and regulations. But the urge to define the spirit of sport as something apart from the rules of competition fails to recognize that sport is made possible by rules. The spirit of sport is not obscured by rules; the spirit of sport is found in the rules that govern competition.