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Doping In Sports: Time For An Honest Conversation

Olympic swimmer's amazing performance raises questions


The controversy surrounding the Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiwen, who won a gold medal this week in the 400 Individual Medley, has every news show buzzing. While I can't speak to her specific case, I find the conversation surrounding the controversy fascinating and healthy.

Frankly, it's about time we stopped being politically correct and had an honest conversation about doping. The sports world has a drug problem, and it's not just baseball, track and field and cycling. The Olympics is a big time business with lots of money and endorsements at stake for athletes, coaches, national governing bodies, countries and the International Olympic Committee. Every Olympic athlete who tests positive puts a black mark on the Olympic 'brand.'  While the International Olympic Committee, national Olympic Committees and national governing bodies say that they want clean competition and extensive drug testing, they have a lot to gain from super-human, spectacular, world record-breaking performances, and a lot to lose when these phenomenal athletes test positive. Female freestyle swimmers

First, admit a problem exists

The drug problem won't change as long as the public, media and sponsors clamor for and handsomely reward super-human results. We enjoy watching world records fall over and over again; we've come to expect higher, stronger and faster, but where does it end? Is there a limit to human potential? I say yes! At some point world records should fall by tenths, hundreds and thousandths of a second, not by multiple seconds several times in the same competition. The drug problem won't go away until society either gets mad and enforces serious legal consequences for cheaters or makes performance enhancing drugs legal in Olympic sports.

The first step has to be admitting that there is a problem. We all want to believe that hard work, discipline, determination, and perseverance are rewarded with a gold medal, and so we do. We don't want to believe that, in many cases, what it takes to make it to the top step of the podium is drugs and a plan to get away with it.

My sentiments echo John Leonard's when he said, "The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something... 'unbelievable,' history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved."  

For years I've said that if a performance seems superhuman, it probably is. If there is any question about what performance enhancing drugs can do, ask people who have admitted to it, like Tyler Hamilton and Marion Jones. They swore up and down that they had earned their medals and titles through hard work, but in the end it wasn't true. Ye Shiwen says that she has not used any banned drugs, but what else could she say; accused athletes always say that.

Are Men and Women Equally Capable?

On Fox News Channel's America Live in the Kelly's Court segment, Dr. Marc Siegel said it's sexist to suggest that Ye Shiwen is doping because she finished faster than the men's gold medalist in that event. He said, "Medically any woman is capable of doing what any man can do. ... Physiologically I think this is possible."

With all do respect to Dr. Siegel I find his comment preposterous. Men naturally have more testosterone and human growth hormone. History shows that men are stronger and faster than women; if they weren't, men and women would compete together. Ye Shiwen may simply be a phenomenon, but the fact that she swam faster than the men's gold medal winner has to raise a red flag.

My Experience

I competed at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games in track cycling. I raced at an international level for ten years, and I trained really hard. As part of my training I rode with local bike clubs on group rides. My riding companions on those group rides were men who had much less experience and trained significantly less then I did. While I quite enjoyed the fact that I could beat some of them, several of them were still stronger and faster than me. At the same level of competition men are stronger and faster than women.  It isn't sexist to say that, it's just a biological fact.

In her Olympic competition Ye Shiwen improved her personal time by five seconds; that's impressive. It's true that young athletes can enjoy big leaps in their performance, but in my experience those gains are generally on their way up to the world level, not after they've already been World Champion.

Throughout my racing career I was very suspicious of big improvements, especially from experienced competitors. Over years of competition, one of my competitors consistently beat me by a second or two, but then she crushed me by almost 11 seconds in a major international race a few years later. For the record, I was still going the same speed. I don't care what kind of training was done; I just don't think that kind of improvement is clean. You can call me jaded and bitter, but I just can't believe it.

Drug Testing

Many commentators have stated that Ye Shiwen will be drug tested and then we'll know if she's clean or not, but I don't necessarily believe that is true either. While I have the utmost respect for the Anti-Doping Agency and commend what they are trying to do, it seems that the cheaters are always one step ahead; some methods of cheating aren't even detectible by current testing methods. Many athletes never test positive, but are instead outed by a teammate or trainer.

Everyone has an opinion, but in the end Ye Shiwen and maybe her doctor and coach are the only people who know if she is clean. If she won her race fair and square then she has my greatest praises and deserves her gold medals. If not, well then hopefully some day, somehow she'll be held accountable!

Erin Mirabella is a two-time Olympic track cyclist, mother, MomsTeam's track cycling expert, and children's book author.  Her books, Shawn Sheep The Soccer Star and Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race are available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, borders.com, velogear.com, and at The Olympic Training Centers and select stores. For more information visit Erin's website.