We can’t help to look at elite athletes as gods. We are always overwhelmed for what they do. We wonder how far they can go and what it takes to get there. We live fascinated with their skills.
But elite sport, has another face that, like it or not, you are going to see in any moment.
First, nature does its own selection by genetic. Most of elite athletes have any particular biological characteristic that makes them adequate for their sport. Great height, long legs, exorbitant oxygen consumption, conveniently distributed muscle fibers and so on…
Those who are lucky enough to have any of those mutations, are the ones that we usually see on TV doing these incredible performances. Those are the gifted ones!
The problem lies in those who want to become elite athletes and they don’t have any outstanding biological advantage. My coach once told me: “you find two types of athletes. The gifted ones and the ones who must work harder to barely get to the level of the gifted ones”. He’s totally right!
To be honest, most of the athletes you see are pure hard-workers, they’re kind of stubborn with the idea of becoming one day the next world or Olympic champion. Others (much more realistic) conform to making state or national teams.
They spend long hours of training, energy, they make lots of sacrifices in their personal lives, they mortgage their health (because elite training is not healthy) and do anything for that dream. They may get some good results (if we consider that wise statement: “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”) but when they have to face a gifted athlete who has worked as hard as them (or even harder), they finally understand the difference.
It’s kind of unfair, because at the end of the day you’re nobody if you don’t have any relevant victory. As Bill Gates said in one of his life rules: “the world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself”. People won’t care how hard you train, they just expect you to do something remarkable. The truth is that the ones who get the front pages of the newspapers are the gold medalists.
So far I’ve talked about how unfair is elite sport for the non-gifted. Now let’s see how hard it is for the gifted ones.
It’s just summarized in one single word: interest.
Governments, Federations, Leagues, clubs… don’t care about the health of the elite athletes or their future, they only use their victories to flaunt about their politics, system or administration. And if you, as elite athlete, don’t obtain a remarkable result, you better find something else to make a living.
In the context of the cold war, where USSR and USA had their fighting, sport was a perfect stage to prove who was better. The athletes were more like lab rats and as the drug testing was limited, there was an open field for creating performance enhancing drugs that won’t be discovered.
East Germany government developed the most sophisticated doping program on earth. A system that made this country with about 16 million of habitants become a world leader in sports at the 70’s and 80’s. Men and women were given Oral Turinabol, a strong anabolic steroid that made them true machines. Women were seriously masculinized (just look at Heidi Krieger case). At that time, Marita Koch broke the 400m world record by a huge margin that won’t ever be touched by a clean athlete just as the androgen Jarmilla Kratochvilová at the 800m.
Americans had to step it up a notch too. Flo Jo case make you lift your eyebrows. With 28 years she went from a discreet mark to a stratospheric 100m world record in just some few months (don't tell me that after breaking a WR in 100m by such a margin you end up smiling, hugging and waving). After that, when the surprise drug tests begin in 1989, she immediately retired. Bob Kersee is a genious!
Another case to consider is Carl Lewis. We all know the story of the 1988 Olympics when Ben Johnson beat him but it was found that Johnson was doped so Carl Lewis was the “real” winner. What most of the people ignore is that in April 2003 Sports Illustrated published USOC official documents that prove that Lewis and other 11 American athletes tested positive by ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenilpropalamine but they argued that they did it with no intention. So case was dismissed. Today, Carl Lewis is still a respected retired athlete, he keeps going to all kinds of events as a great personality and American media seems to ignore what he did.
Not to mention recent cases like Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay, Veronica Campbell Brown and long list of recognized elite athletes that have been discovered.
Elite sport is a dirty business and we are being constantly cheated by these gods of sport. It's humanly impossible to get to certain levels without the use of performance enhancing drugs and it seems those who are smart enought to cover it, are the ones who succeed.