One day at the 1997 World Track and Field Championships in Athens, Greece, the Sunday Times of London writer David Walsh asked me if I were writing about doping in every story.
This was a few years before Walsh published two books about Lance Armstrong, in which the writer laid out a convincing case that the cyclist had doped, albeit one without a smoking gun. Doping had become Walsh's white whale, and his monomania was understandable.
I replied to David that I did not feel it was necessary to mention doping in every story, even if it always was at the front of my mind in writing about the statistical exploits of track and field athletes.
I bring this up because of the reaction to a Globetrotting entry I wrote last week after Jamaica's Yohan Blake ran a startling time of 19.26 seconds in the 200 meters at the Diamond League meet in Brussels. In the story, I raised the question of whether doping could have been involved.
That strongest negative reaction, not surprisingly, was in Jamaica. So a Jamaican radio station, KLAS Sports, invited me to discuss it on the air Monday.
The hosts asked me what I thought about U.S. athlete Kevin Young's 19-year-old world record (46.78) seconds in the 400 hurdles. (The time was nearly a second faster - .94 - than Young's previous personal best. Young came wthin a half second of it just once more; it is the only time ever under 47 seconds in the event.)
My answer was, in essence, strong suspicion that doping played a part. (And they agreed).
They asked me whether there was a lot of suspicion about Carl Lewis after it was revealed years after the fact that he had a positive test for a stimulant declared negative by the U.S. Olympic Committee at a time (1988) when a claim of inadvertent use could be exculpatory.
My answer: there was suspicion about Carl Lewis dating back to the 1983 world championships.
Without being asked, I brought up new world 100-meter champion Carmelita Jeter of the United States, who suddenly began running remarkably fast three seasons ago at age 29. She has been consistently fast since -- and, as a colleague has pointed out, no woman in history has been faster older. I told my radio hosts her performances have raised my eyebrows.
At the end of a 20-minute interview, they asked me if I were suspicious about everything exceptional that happens in the sport.
My answer: yes.
How can it be otherwise, after years of having star track athletes test positive; admit guilt; be named in the doping records unearthed when the Berlin Wall fell; and have statistically shocking performances, like Blake's and many, many others?
(And, yes, my Spidey sense about the possibility Blake had doped was heightened by his having failed a test for a banned stimulant in 2009.)
My published suspicions aren't limited to track, and my sense of the word "exceptional" is broad.
I expressed doubts about the performances of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith at the 1996 Olympics. In a story headlined, "Red Flag Raised Over Smith's Great Waves," I quoted Irish Olympic Committee President Pat Hickey saying, "The Americans are jealous this swimmer from a little country like Ireland took a gold medal off them. . .There is nothing to justify (the doping suggestions)."
Hickey's reaction is similar to comments Jamaicans have made to my story about Blake: the overbearing Americans picking on a little country they no longer can beat.
But two years after Smith won three golds at the 1996 Olympics, she was banned for manipulating a doping control with alcohol. Even that manipulation could not hide the evidence of a banned steroid in her sample.
I also wondered out loud in 2000 how U.S. swimmer Dara Torres could be swimming career-best times after her first 7-year retirement led to the 2000 Olympics, when she was only 33 years old.
When she was widely celebrated for coming out of another retirement to make the 2008 Olympics at age 41, I wrote, "The hype over Torres as a swimmer conveniently overlooks doubts about how she is faster at sprint events in 2008 than she was in 1988." I just don't believe her 2008 times owed entirely to the advantage of the bodysuits that would be called "technological doping" before being banned last year.
And don't even get me started on cycling.
The choice is between being justifiably suspicious and being embarrassingly naive. Even bringing up doping, then getting a denial from the subject -- as I did in a long pre-Sydney profile of Marion Jones -- often leaves one wanting to take three showers after finishing the story.
One might ask then why we write about people whose achievements raise questions. The answer is that one cannot ignore a Marion Jones or a Dara Torres or a Michelle Smith.
Unlike most U.S. professional sports, at least until lately, track and field has made a determined if occasionally Sisyphean effort to catch cheaters through more and more drug testing. (So has cycling.)
But testing is flawed enough that it remains relatively easy to beat. The BALCO story, involving the designer drug THG, showed how fooling with a few molecules can create a substance that went undetected for years. There undoubtedly are other such drugs being used now by elite athletes in many sports.
As I have written in the past, the saddest part of the situation is athletes who claim to be clean cannot prove that indisputably, and cheaters often cannot be caught.
Which brings me back to another anecdote related to the one involving my conversation with David Walsh.
About 10 months after then 400-meter world record-holder Butch Reynolds tested positive for a steroid and was banned from the sport for two years, I went to interview him in Columbus, Ohio. During several hours of conversation, Reynolds denied doping, insisted he could say that and look in the mirror with no shame and asserted the positive was a mistake. I would write all that in the story.
At one point in our conversation, the thoroughly likable Reynolds asked, "Do you believe me?'' I said something to the effect of, "I want to, but I hope you will understand if I cannot say that without hesitation because other athletes who hadn't tested positive have told me the same thing before getting caught later."
Much as he wished for a different answer, Reynolds accepted with grace and no bitterness the one I gave.
That happened 20 years ago.
I was suspicious then. I am more suspicious now.
For all that, I am still writing about track and field because the sport's universality, its events and characters - from hulking shotputters to waifish distance runners - and its intriguing tactics and techniques all fascinate me.
Sometimes I find it necessary to bring up doping.
But I still do not mention it in every story. Not even many stories. Just when it cannot be overlooked.Copyright © 2015, CT Now