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An Open Letter to Sebastian Coe: Invoke Lifetime Bans for Dopers

Dear Lord Sebastian Coe, President of the IAAF:

I was an impressionable young teenager runner when I met you and your father at the Kinney Cross Country Midwest Regional Championship (now known as Foot Locker) in suburban Chicago way back in 1983. Although it was a low point of your career, I was in awe of you as an athlete. I got your autograph—the only one I have ever gotten from a professional athlete—and still have it.

The following summer, some of my teammates piled in a car and drove to rival York High School to catch a glimpse of you training relentlessly one humid morning as you went through some of your final preparations for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Your determination to repeat as the gold medalist in the 1,500 that year—especially in defiance of the doubting British press—and your enduring greatness certainly fueled my own middle-distance running pursuits for a while and had a lasting impact on me.

Like you, I loved running because it made me feel free and pure. Like you, I still love to run and and support the sport, but we both learned long ago that at the highest levels, running isn’t all that pure. Now that you’re president of the IAAF, I’m respectfully counting on you to call upon the integrity and tenacity you carried so proudly as an athlete to boldly and relentlessly clean up the sport. You’ve got plenty on your plate heading into 2016, but I would start by invoking lifetime bans for dopers as soon as you can.

Ensure Better Testing and Invoke Lifetime Bans

The most clear-cut way to clean up the sport and reduce the threat of doping is to invoke lifetime bans for all first-time offenders after due process finds them guilty of performance-enhancing drug use. If it were up to me, I would do it immediately and retroactively, ridding the sport of all known dopers in one fell swoop. Boom. Good-bye and good riddance.

I know this will be easy to shrug off as a naïve suggestion and impossible to execute, but don’t do that. Remember when you were an athlete how sick it made you to know your competitors were doping? It should be a no-brainer and plenty of athletes agree, including Alysia Montaño and Molly Huddle. Use your power to make it happen. Start with the notion that doping is a problem that’s crippling the sport and work your way down from there.

Honestly, if you had a moldy piece of spoiled fruit in the bowl on your kitchen counter, would you put it in the trash or compost bin? Or would you keep it with the rest of your fresh fruits and vegetables? How should an aspiring young runner feel if you keep the bad fruit around to spoil everything?

Let’s face it, there will always be athletes who try to cheat. But the incentive to do so will be considerably reduced if the imminent threat of lifetime expulsion, elimination of sponsorships, punitive financial penalties and permanent humiliation are known punishment. I’m not talking about jail time. I’m just saying make those cheaters go away.

Instead, we have an athlete like two-time offender Justin Gatlin, who is somehow able to talk his way out of a lifetime ban in 2006 only to return to action four years later and take national team spots and sponsorship dollars that could have gone to clean athletes. He’s just one example (albeit one of the worst) that plagues our sport.

If you want fans, sponsors, media and aspiring young athletes to stick with the sport and believe in the amazing athletic performances they see, take a stand and immediately exterminate the sport of athletes and coaches like, along with others,  Gatlin, Tyson Gay, Jon DrummondLaShawn Merritt, Trevor Graham, Mary Akor Basley, Rita JeptooAsli Cakir Alptekin, Liliya ShobukhovaMo Trafeh, Marion Jones and Ben Johnson—among the many people we have watched win medals, break records and become celebrated personalities of our sport despite hovering suspicions about their integrity or, worse yet, a record of blatant cheating.

Say what you want about the expulsion of Pete Rose from baseball, but the lifetime ban he was given in 1989 certainly removed the corupt cloud of gambling he brought to the game. Just think if baseball had done the same with dopers in the late 1990s. (Sadly, Major League Baseball couldn’t even rid itself of the problem after it knew who the dopers were—largely because of the player’s union—but at least it started to crack down.)

While I understand there are plenty of legal and reasonable therapeutic use exemptions that can raise a red flag on a drug test, the current drug-testing protocol is entirely too soft. It’s too easy to beat the tests and most athletes aren’t tested often enough. The World Anti-Doping Agency announced this week it will “put greater focus on strengthening compliance work so that all anti-doping organizations worldwide are held accountable to deliver robust anti-doping programs” but improving testing science and insuring every federation in the world is dedicated to diligently testing its athletes can’t happen soon enough. You should up the ante and tell the world that IAAF is now banning first-time offenders with lifetime bans.

When it comes down to it, the biggest problem is that the penalty for first-time doping convictions is entirely too soft. In most cases, an athlete will get banned for two years and then have a chance to come back before the next Olympic cycle. (And there is belief those athletes still might benefit, even if they do come back clean.)

“The slaps on the wrist that some of our own athletes have received is a disgrace,” says Montaño, a six-time U.S. 800-meter champion who finished fifth in the 800-meter run at the 2012 Olympics. “They’ve been popped for doping, they help out and give up some information and they’re allowed to come back? No, that shouldn’t be how it works. Get out! If they’ve been busted, get them out of the sport because they’re making us all look bad.”

Despite knowingly having been beaten by dopers in her career—and Seb, you know know as well as anyone that the clean athletes always know who the suspected dopers are—Montaño has kept her chin up and remained motivated to train hard in the pursuit of greatness. But at last year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing—the eighth international championship meet of her career—she found herself entirely discouraged watching ex-dopers compete for—and win—medals.

Most notably, American sprinters Gatlin, Gay and Mike Rodgers, despite a combined four convictions that could have resulted in a cumulative 15 years of suspensions, all made the finals of the 100-meter dash and finished 2nd, 5th and 6th. (Several of those suspensions were appealed and reduced and they were legally allowed to continue competing.)

“In the 100-meter race, it was impossible for me to cheer for my own teammates,” Montaño says. “How sad is that? It’s an insult to me as an athlete.”

Allowing convicted dopers to return not only allows those cheaters to make more money, but it also allows those dopers to take Olympic berths and endorsement deals away from clean athletes and ultimately puts a cloud over the current generation of clean stars. It also thwarts young up-and-coming athletes from making it at all. (And Justin Gatlin just stop it. Stop telling the world that you won’t talk to the press because they’re still calling you a doper.)

There’s nothing the IAAF, IOC or USATF can or will do for someone like Montaño, even if she is retrospectively awarded the bronze medal for the 800 meters at the 2012 Olympics. She was fifth in the race, but the runners who finished first and third in that event were dopers from Russia. Even if she gets the medal she justly deserves, she’s forever lost out on money, moments and glory that can never be replaced. What kind of message does that send to the clean athletes in our sport? What does that say to teenagers getting started in the sport? What does it say about our sport’s leadership?

“She’s had millions of dollars stolen from her and she’s still out here grinding away on the track and doing it the right way,” says two-time U.S. Olympic 800-meter runner Nick Symmonds, a silver medalist in the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. “It’s really sad when you think about how many people who aren’t doing it on the level and ruining it for those who are. It’s hard to even think about.

“I believe in Seb Coe. I believe he wants what is best for the sport. He’s a former athlete and I think we all have to give him a chance to clean it up. But I almost think you have to burn it to the ground and start fresh.”

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Take a Much Bolder Stand Against Dopers

When you took your new job as IAAF president last summer, it was clear the biggest task at hand was to clean up the sport. Yes, most athletes are clean, but the sport has been sullied with dopers for years and the IAAF hasn’t done nearly enough to eradicate it. There have been hundreds of doping suspensions over the past decade and we all know there are dozens more medal winners who have gotten by without ever being busted or, worse yet, allowed to come back too easy with reduced penalties.

While the first step of cracking down on Russia was a nice and obvious gesture, it’s certainly disappointing to know that the IAAF (for which you have served in a leadership role since 2007) has been complicit in the cover-up at some level for far too long. And already, it sounds like Russia, which received a very vague “provisional suspension” could get off lightly and be allowed to compete in the Rio Olympics.

Please take a stand—and set a tone for things to come—by using your influence to keep Russia out of Rio. Merely keeping them out of the 2016 IAAF Indoor World Championships would be completely meaningless and it would show you’re more about lip service and not committed to cleaning up the sport or the dirty politics of the IAAF.

But you also have to admit it’s not just Russia that’s a problem right now. Where there is smoke there is fire, and there has been a lot of smoldering around the globe for decades—most recently in the U.S., Kenya, Morocco, Jamaica and right under your nose at the 2012 London Olympics, which some people have called the dirtiest Olympics in history. Put everyone on notice—athletes, coaches, agents, federations, sponsors—that you’re serious about cleaning up the sport.

If not, your own credibility will continue to be called into question and you’ll soon be looked at as another crooked administrator who chooses not to act.

“It’s hard to have believe in Seb Coe honestly not knowing what was going on and have belief in him being able to clean up the current problems,” Montaño says. “I think he’s part of the problem, and I think the whole house needs to be cleaned up.”


Brian Metzler

Competitor magazine