Friday, December 22, 2006

Your Cheatin’ Heart

It is refreshing when athletes speak their mind rather than try to be politically correct. Many of them try so hard to not give away strategies that they end up saying nothing during interviews. So, it was quite interesting to read a candid interview with the up and coming American marathoner Fernando Cabada (training partner of Fasil Bizuneh), who spoke openly about his ambition and goals.

Of course, there is always the risk of talking too openly to an extent where a whole segment of society gets offended. Take Turbo Tumo, one of the top Ethiopian marathoners in the 1990s. After he failed to finish the 1996 Olympic Marathon, he was asked why he dropped out. Turbo (killer name for a runner!) replied saying he thought it would be better to drop out rather than finish the race in a time only fit for women runners. Ouch!

Someone should have told Turbo about the Tanzanian marathoner John Akhwari who represented his country with great dignity in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Akhwari managed to
limp to the finish line with a cut knee and dislocated joint he suffered from a fall during the race. As he approached the finish line, an hour after Mamo Wolde won the race, he was given a thunderous ovation by the crowd. When he was asked later on why he did not drop out of the race, he replied with what has become one of the greatest quotes: "My country did not send me over 11,000 kilometers to start a race. They sent me over 11,000 kilometers to finish one."

Speaking of athletes talking openly, who can forget what Paula Radcliffe did at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. She
openly protested against the Russian 5000m runner Olga Yegorova who had tested positive for the performance enhancing substance EPO. At the 5000m race which Yegorova was competing in, Paula watched the race from the stands while holding a large sign that read “EPO CHEATS OUT.” Now, that is talking openly!

Radcliffe surely did not mince her words on how she feels about athletes who cheat. And many of them do cheat. Those who get caught almost always deny cheating and come up with the
wildest excuses. Others say all top athletes (including Ethiopians!) cheat with some type of performance enhancing drugs. Many question the legitimacy of some of the seemingly unreachable world records supposedly achieved with an enhanced performance. There was even suggestion of scrapping all records and start fresh as we entered the new millennium.

Athletics has changed from an amateur to a professional sport, and the money that comes with such transition could be enticing for anyone to want to cheat. That is the easy explanation. The question that I find more interesting is why some athletes cheat when there is no financial motivation. Last week, I read an
article that talked about a $12200 settlement offered to 167 former athletes of East Germany who were forced to take performance enhancing drugs. It is an acknowledgment that someone within the East German government had taken a deliberate action to cheat against competitors from other countries. Why? Perhaps to prove to the world that Communism is a superior ideology and those who live under it are “stronger” human beings. In the process, the government compromised the health of those very people whom it wanted to prove as being superior!

It is even more curious when non-competitive runners are caught cheating. Of course, no dose of performance enhancing drug could propel a regular Joe/Jane to the front of the pack so these people resort to other form of cheating. The classic case of this is Rosie Ruiz who
“finished” first in the 1980 Boston Marathon before being disqualified shortly there after. There are also cases of charity runners cutting course to shorten the marathon in order to
“finish” within the prescribed amount of time. I can not understand why anyone who goes out to run a marathon at a very slow pace would feel compelled to take a short cut rather than honorably drop out like the brave Turbo Tumo…

And that brings me back to the thought of professional integrity among Ethiopian athletes. Is it inconceivable that some Ethiopian athlete would use performance enhancing substances? Are Ethiopian athletes more honorable than others and would consider cheating to be beneath them? One can never say for sure whether a particular Ethiopian athlete does or does not use performance enhancing substance until a test result comes positive. But rest assured that there will always be a bad apple in the barrel.

As an unbelievable as it sounds (at least to me), there has been an Ethiopian elite runner, named
Alene Emere, who has been caught using the performance enhancing substance EPO and suspended from competition in 2001. Even after serving his suspension, he was disqualified from a race where he registered with a different name in an apparent attempt to disguise himself.

So, there is a cheatin’ heart in runners slow and fast, men and women, Ethiopian and American. Though we are stunned when we learn about stories of
Ben Johnson, Regina Jacobs, Mary Slaney, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Dennis Mitchell, Justin Gatlin, and even Ethiopia’s Alene Emere, we should never forget that there is no limit to the depth humans will sink to when left to their own devices.

It is wonderful that all the big-name runners Ethiopia has produced have stayed out of trouble so far. However, we must be careful not to expect of them a super-human standard.

Jeremiah 17:9-10

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

"I the LORD search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward a man according to his conduct,
according to what his deeds deserve."

Psalm 19:14

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

be pleasing in your sight,
O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

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