Whilst we were in New York City last week, I was contacted by former US National 800 metre runner Ray Brown, ranked 3rd in the US in 1989. Ray knew Ben when they were on the international circuit in the ‘80s. Ray, Ben and I had breakfast and he very kindly gave me the following piece he penned for the Wall Street Journal that articulates his view on the use of performance enhancing drugs.
Take it away Ray…
Major League Baseball’s recent suspension of over a dozen players for the violation of the league’s drug program gave me pause. The positive test for a banned substance by Tyson Gay, the American record holder in the 100m, forced my reflection on my time as a world-class athlete. I was an accomplished 800m runner in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I won six USA Track and Field indoor national championships. I represented the USA in more than ten international competitions including the 1989 World indoor Championships where I placed fifth. Olympic glory was not in the cards for me. A one percent improvement, however, on my best times from my heyday would have placed me on the podium. Yet, the use of performance enhancing drugs never seriously crossed my mind.
My running career may have been in a different era but the same enticements to cheat in order to gain fame, wealth and glory existed. Track and Field Olympic icons like Carl Lewis and Flo Jo made millions of dollars a year. Many at the top of their event easily make a half a million dollars or more a year. There was a firm belief; moreover, that one had to take PEDs in order to be competitive. The notorious Ben Johnson was living proof of this notion since he was stripped of his 1988 Seoul Olympic 100m Gold medal for a positive test of Stanozolol. His coach, Charlie Francis even proclaimed, “In order to compete successfully against those athletes (sprinters) at the very top level, an athlete had to take steroids.”
It may be trite and simplistic but I was certainly a product of my upbringing. This fact kept me on the “straight and narrow.” My grandfather was a judge. I still have notes of encouragement and praise from his chambers inscribed with his title “The Honorable Raymond Pace Alexander”. My father was an Air Force fighter pilot. Honor and integrity ruled his career as well as our home. My high school headmaster reinforced the lessons of my family as he urged two generation of future leaders to “pick the hard right over the easy wrong”. Naturally, my high school coached affirmed these sentiments. He taught us hard work would deliver whatever goals we set for ourselves. Then he sent us on a twelve mile run.
The vast majority of young men and women who embark on an athletic career embrace similar beliefs and values. The sports world would collapse if the cheats and frauds dominated. Unfortunately, in all walks of life, the flawed and wounded will employ any means necessary to ascend the heights of their profession. Victory is thought to be the antidote to their despair. Lance Armstrong rode his bike so fast not only to win seven Tours de France but also to escape his troubled youth. Svengalis and alchemists are poised to entice these susceptible athletes with their seductive yarns: It’s not cheating if everyone else is doing it. Who are you hurting?
My solution was to insulate myself from the siren songs. My post collegiate coach exuded a self-reliance which infused his athletes. This mind-set bred an assurance and resolve which fed our self-confidence. It was an old school testament to the power of the human spirit. The solution to our problem would not be found by figuring out what the guy in lane five did. The question was what did I do to be great? Did I give the proper attention and detail to each and every interval and mile I ran, my nutrition, my mind-set? Victory could be declared, whether or not the race was won, when I could say all the requirements identified for the achievement of my goals were properly addressed.
The images of Olympic icons who demonstrated inspiring performances prior to the era of steroids contributed to my introspective focus. One feat etched in my mind was Bob Beamon’s victory in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics Long Lump. His winning mark of 29 ft 2 ½ in surpassed the previous world record by almost two feet. The prior seven years produced six world record jumps that only improved the record by four and a quarter inches. This feat inspired the term “Beamonesque”, which is defined as something completely unexpected and amazing, coming out of nowhere, with great excellence involved. Beamon’s leap enthralled me. He answered ever coach’s plea, “Show me the champion you are. I know you have it in you. Dig deep, get it out.” The puzzle than becomes how one increases the frequency of such feats?
Four years later, Dave Wottle experienced his Beamonesque moment with a victory in the 1972 Munich Olympics 800m. The spindly Wottle came off the last turn in sixth place to snatch first in the last stride of the race. His win astonished the world. Wottle’s will and desire was an expression of an indomitable will to succeed. We called it heart: a quality far more powerful than a performance enhancing drug. It is also not for sale.