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Something Was Stolen

Drug Accusations Tar the Innocent

(This story was published in 2006).

By: Nat Brown

The Italian government has threatened to jail athletes caught using illegal drugs at the Olympics.

I hope they do, because something has been stolen.

At the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, Johann Muehlegg (A German athlete skiing for Spain) finished the 50 Kilometer cross-country race, one of the most grueling athletic events in the world, at sprint speed. Subsequently, Muehlegg was found to be taking performance-enhancing drugs, and his medal was taken away (though not the ones he had one earlier, before he failed his drug test). The same week, we saw Canadian skier Becky Scott win a bronze medal in the cross-country sprint event. This medal was upgraded to a silver when it was shown that one of her competitors had been using drugs, and later, the medal was again upgraded to gold, when it was proven that both of her competitors had been drugging.

Last week, eight cross-country competitors were suspended from Olympic competition for five days (quite possibly missing their best races) due to too high hemoglobin values. Five have since been reintsated. I personally know two of these athletes, and have had the honor to work with and for them over the last five or six hears as their careers have developed. I know them, their coaches, their families and their friends. They have not been taking drugs or cheating. That is simply not in the cards, and it is utterly against the way they live their lives. And I suspect the same may well be true of others on the same list.

What do these incidents have in common?

Something is very wrong here, and something has been stolen.

On the simplest level, some of these athletes have just lost a chance to compete in the Olympics. Four years of work, indeed, most of their lives and all of their energy and hopes and ideals, and a good deal of their and their friends’ and supporters’ hopes and ideals, have been leading up to this. And all of that has been stolen.

Worse, accusations of drugging will cling to these athletes for the rest of their lives. While I am absolutely certain that the two Americans are innocent of nothing more than a natural high hemoglobin level, even reinstated they will always be known for this scandal – and not for what they can do in their sport. Something good and beautiful has been stolen.

Kikkan Randall and Leif Zimmermann (pictured left) stand for the best in us. They stand for hard work, endless striving for improvement – for excellence. The Greeks had a word for Kikkan and Leif: “kagathos”, or “beautiful and excellent.” These two have given us something of great value: an ideal: while I know that I could never have performed at the level these two have - and can - the fact that someone could, has widened and lit up my life.

Sports teach us something very precious. If you have run uphill intervals to the puking point, or whatever the equivalent is in your sport, you have learned discipline and focus, a good deal about where the limits lie – always somewhere out ahead – and an enormous amount about yourself, and about joy and confidence. That’s what sports can be about, and that’s what Kikkan and Leif have stood for and done. But something has been stolen.

What has been stolen is trust. The cheaters, the people who want to “win” with drugs, are not just cheating. They are stealing all those years of Leif’s and Kikkan’s lives, because they have created an atmosphere of distrust, an atmosphere where everyone is suspect, where winners and all those who try are spattered with their mud, and where excellence is no longer trusted, or perhaps even regarded as a quality worth laying it on the line for.

Who is at fault? Where does the responsibility lie?

First and foremost, it lies with the “athletes” who have cheated, or allowed themselves to be pressured into cheating.

It lies within some sports organizations. Drugging is not cheap. A drugging scandal a few years ago was shown to have involved almost a quarter of a million dollars of doctors’ fees, movement of cutting-edge drugs across international borders, and an entire national team.

It lies within power structures and “interests.” Those with the power to do so, have interrupted drug testing when things got too warm: no need to expose scandal or rock the international sports boat. Or upset the sponsors.

It lies within the way we worship winning and ignore ideals and effort. If nothing but winning has value, there will always be those who are willing to steal victory, and rob Kikkan and Leif of just results.

It lies with an atmosphere where high-school athletes turn to muscle-building drugs, where logos and cool eyewear are more important than the hard work and ruthless self-honesty of chasing excellence, and where “kagathos” is a side issue.

It lies with all of us who have cheered for questionable winners, ignored the news about sports and drugs, and – sometimes unavoidably – contributed to the mega-wealth and power that sports can convey.

Nineteen years ago I played a small part in America’s first and only World Championship medal in biathlon, when Josh Thompson won a silver medal at Lake Placid in 1987. Along with becoming engaged, this stands out in my memory as the most joy-filled moment of my life – because I saw what dedication and work and discipline could achieve – and because I caught a glimpse of something shiningly simple: what could be.

And that’s what has been stolen.

Kikkan and Leif, though both were reinstated, have been robbed by the cheaters just as clearly as if the cheaters had broken into their houses and stolen their valuables. Even though they are fully exonerated, some of the mud will never quite wash away in some minds.

And all of us have lost something good.

Frankly, I hope the Italians lock the cheaters in jail and throw away the key. And I wish everyone involved in the cheating could be held accountable.

And I hope we’ll all do some serious thinking.

And I hope we can win sports back. Because something of infinite human value has been stolen.

Nat Brown is a three-time Olympic coach in cross-country skiing, and has coached at seven World Championships and seven Junior World Championships. He was the first American to take over ski service for a foreign country (Slovenia). Prior to coaching, he taught at the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington for 16 years. He is the author of The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (The Mountaineers Book – now in a Russian edition). He is currently working on a new book on x-c skiing, under the working title “The Curmudgeon’s Complete Guide to x-c Skiing.” His loves are classical music, good books, and his ranch in British Columbia.