- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

Sprinter Michelle Collins and marathoner Eddy Hellebuyck received their sentences last week for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Collins was banned from the sport for eight years, effectively ending the 33-year-old’s competitive career. Hellebuyck drew a two-year ban, interrupting the 43-year-old’s extension of a long and successful career.

Thus the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) marked two more successes in a year when more than a dozen athletes have been temporarily tossed from professional track and field and road racing. Some, like Regina Jacobs, have conveniently announced their retirements rather than being appropriately disgraced.

USA Track & Field’s zero-tolerance policy appears to be working, as evidenced by the lack of American drug cheats in the 2004 Athens Olympics exposed thus far.

The bans, however, are not enough.

These cheating athletes should spend time in prison.

Collins, Hellebuyck and all the other guilty track and field athletes were merely slapped on the wrist for stealing hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in prize money and sponsorships — along with fame and records — from athletes who played it straight and came up short.

And yet it doesn’t seem like anybody is talking grand larceny here.

Immediately after USADA’s announcement of Hellebuyck’s suspension, there was talk on the masters online list from athletes who had placed closely behind the 1996 Olympian from Belgium who became an American in 1999.

Several athletes posted angry missives about Hellebuyck because he had beaten them in competitions where the prize money was significant. Hellebuyck was still able to earn a living in the sport he had competed in for more than two decades — he said in an interview last year he earned $48,000 in 2002 — because there is decent prize money for masters at major competitions.

Had I been a talented enough athlete to finish behind Hellebuyck and either in or just out the money, you can bet I would have sued him for financial damages.

Take, for example, his payday at the 2003 Twin Cities Marathon: $30,500 in prize money and bonuses.

He was awarded $20,000 for first place overall, while the runner-up received $12,000. He netted another $2,500 as the first American, while the second American earned $1,500. He was the first masters runner and winner of the USA Masters Marathon Championships, collecting another $4,000 and $3,000, respectively, while the runner-ups earned $3,000 and $2,000.

Plus, he shattered the U.S. masters marathon record by four minutes with a 2:12:47 (he ran ninth in 2:19:59 the year before on the same course), his sixth-fastest time in more than 90 marathons.

I don’t see him giving back the money, or his American masters records (5K, 10K, 15K, 10 miles and marathon), or his numerous national championships. He still does not believe he was guilty of anything.

“If I was the athlete to cheat, I would have been doing so 20 years ago, not on the fumes of my retirement,” he said in the interview with Runner’s World.

Retirement? The guy was still making a decent living in the only career he knows, running nearly the same marathon times as a 42-year-old (2:12:47) he was running as a 33-year-old (personal best 2:11:50). As long as that was the case, I suspect Hellebuyck would have kept on racing well into his 50s rather than working eight-hour shifts at some local running store in his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., selling running shoes to eight-hour marathoners.

Meanwhile, Collins’ gold in the 2003 world championships is significantly more valuable than her runner-up silver in terms of sponsorship dollars.

If you steal from your employer’s bank account, you go to prison. If you cheat the IRS on your tax return, you go to prison. There is no reason why athletes like Hellebuyck and Collins and Jacobs should not go to prison for stealing money from their competitors.

Zero tolerance is good, but for most athletes, the two-year ban is worth the risk, especially if it is between Olympic years. If we look at the drug violation as a financial crime with major consequences, it may not be worth the risk any longer.

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