A Clean Break

Former Olympic runner Frank Shorter wants elite athletes to kick their habits.

There are things you know -- and then there are things you know. The difference is everything.

In 1969, while he was in Germany attending his first international track-and-field competition, Frank Shorter roomed with a hammer-thrower, a man of immense proportions. One night the roommate began bouncing off the walls, agitated and nervous. "How am I going to pick him up?" Shorter wondered when he found the mountain passed out in the bathroom. Frank Shorter knew about doping.

But drugs to enhance an athlete's performance were for others, gym giants who needed the bulk and the strength. More to the point, they were for the weak, a prop for the wannabes. For the athletes who chose not to use chemicals, it was as much about pride as it was about health. Doping was for the athletes who weren't good enough.

In 1972 Shorter won the Olympic gold medal in the marathon, a performance that stands today as one of the truly magnificent moments in the history of the games. He wore golden shoes and chewed up ground with a deceptively small stride that made him look as though he were somehow running gentler than everyone else in the field. He took the lead at the fifteen-mile point and widened it in the remaining miles, and when he reached the stadium, he was alone. He was the first American to win the race in nearly seven decades.

In 1976 Shorter was poised to repeat, and for a while, it looked as though he might. As the Olympic marathon course wound through the University of Montreal, Shorter was running stride for stride with a little-known East German named Waldemar Cierpinski. (During the race, Shorter mistook him for Carlos Lopez, a silver-medalist in the 10,000 meters, because of the two men's similar blue-and-white jerseys.) Primarily known as a steeplechaser, Cierpinski had only recently begun competing in marathons. The race against Shorter seemed to mark a turning point for him.

"I remember at the twenty-mile mark, he began to pull away from me," Shorter says. "And I was running hard -- really working. I thought, Uh-oh. I'm in trouble.'"

Shorter dug deep, and he was able to pull to within about fifty meters of Cierpinski. "But at that point," he recalls, "he simply turned around and looked at me, then ran away."

Another member of the United States team, Don Kardong, finished out of the medals by only three seconds. He came in fourth, behind Karel Lismont of Belgium. When Kardong saw Shorter at the finish, he asked if he'd won. A dejected Shorter shook his head and held up two fingers: second place.

During the next four years, Shorter had his suspicions. Cierpinski never seemed capable of duplicating his running at the '76 Olympics. His times bulged: He'd won the gold with a 2:09:55 race, but in the years following his times ran closer to 2:13. He came in third, fourth, fifth in the big races.

Then, at the 1980 Olympics, in Moscow, with the American team boycotting the games, Cierpinski had another conspicuous spike, running away with the gold medal again.

And Shorter wondered some more.

For many people, the issue of drugs in sports simply comes down to one of tautology, the sort of terse explanation you'd expect if you were to ask Pat Robertson why he disapproves of cocaine. Drugs shouldn't be in sports because it's illegal, and it's illegal because drugs shouldn't be in sports. Yet for thinking people, the definition of doping -- the use of performance-enhancing drugs -- has always been squirrelly, and the inability to make a hard-edged case against them is a big part of the problem.

If, for example, you favor a prohibition against chemicals that increase the body's ability to perform athletically or to recover more quickly, then couldn't Gatorade (or PowerBars, or whatever latest EAS supplement Romo is stuffing into his system) qualify -- at least if you believe the ads? And if we all agree that certain drugs are bad, then why is, say, andro -- Mark McGwire's biceps-builder of choice -- legal in Major League Baseball but illegal in track-and-field competitions?

The most common argument against chemically improved performance is tied to an athlete's effort and character. "Doping is illegal because the athlete is not using his own body, physically, to improve himself," argues James Puffer, chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at UCLA's medical school and a former Olympics team doctor. Yet anabolic steroids don't work by magic; you need to endure intense workouts to obtain their benefits. Conversely, consider the (legal) use of pressurized oxygen chambers, which help build red blood cells by mimicking altitude: Where's the physical effort in lounging around in thin air while your blood upgrades to high octane?

Another gray area is what "performance-enhancing" means, exactly. Some illegal drugs don't directly affect performance at all. Human growth hormone, hGH, is not much help during a race. But it does seem to help the body recover more quickly after it is broken down by stress. As a result, an athlete on hGH can keep his rest days to a minimum and train harder, thus increasing his ultimate fitness for race day. That certainly is an advantage. But then, eating a thick steak helps you recover faster than eating potato chips.

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