After the USATF Outdoor Championships in June, Washington Times colleague Dan Daly wondered aloud why Tyson Gay’s tremendous 100/200 performances did not seem to muster much interest across the sporting world.
Daly pointed to Sept. 27, 1988, as the beginning of the end of credibility in track and field and thus wholesale interest in the sport.
That was the day that Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified from the Seoul Olympics after failing a drug test. But 1988 wasn’t necessarily the beginning, as there had been credibility issues with track and field long before. There were political issues that undermined the sport during the 1936 Berlin Olympics when U.S. officials pulled Jewish sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller off the 400-meter relay team to seemingly appease Adolf Hitler.
There were accusations for years that the Finns, particularly 1972 and 1976 Olympic 10,000/5,000 gold medalist Lasse Viren, were engaged in blood doping. U.S. marathon great Frank Shorter, who won gold in 1972, continuously has accused the man who beat him out of the gold in 1976 — East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinski — of taking steroids. Cierpinski also won the marathon in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Then came Johnson, and with him Florence Griffith-Joyner. Just two days after Johnson was stripped of Olympic gold, Flo-Jo, maybe not so coincidentally, set the 200-meter world record. Two months before, she set the 100 world record.
Yes, the sport has had its share of detractors, and yes, drugs have played a part. But let’s look at some other professional sports.
Football—Lyle Alzado probably is most remembered for being one of the first major U.S. sports figures to admit to steroid use from the time he was in college. He died in 1992 at the age of 43, battling brain cancer that he attributed to longtime steroid use.
How many NFL players have been in serious trouble with the law? Countless. Ray Lewis’ public image was tarnished after a Super Bowl party on January 31, 2000, when he was accused of murder, although the charges were reduced. How about the Redskins’ Sean Taylor and his woeful behavior?
The number of DUIs and cocaine use in the NFL is appalling, but do you think the credibility of the sport has diminished over the years to the point that the sports world no longer cares about football? Did Terrell Owens fighting with his own teammates hurt him or the game’s fortunes?
Baseball—Does Rafael Palmeiro’s apparently lying to a Congressional panel about steroid use take away from interest in baseball? While Barry Bonds’ BALCO relationship may be making many in Major League Baseball uneasy as he reaches Hank Aaron’s home run record, has fan support turned south?
Or how about Darryl Strawberry’s proclivity toward wife-beating and cocaine in the late 1980s and all through the next two decades? Seems to me that baseball keeps packing the fans into the ballparks, regardless of its flaws.
Basketball — Between Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, the NBA has way too many players in court as opposed to on the court. Yet how is the sport’s credibility? The league still appears to be thriving.
What has hurt track and field since 1988 isn’t necessarily performance-enhancing drug problems. Since 1988, while professional sports — those that require a ball — have provided huge financial opportunities for young athletes around the world, track and field still remains largely an amateur sport with no organization of its athletes behind it.
But what I see that has really hurt track and field, and professional tennis, too, is the amazing rise in popularity of golf, at all levels — participants as well as fans. And for the life of me, I don’t understand the fascination.
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