June 2004

IT WASN'T MEANT AS A LETTER TO THE EDITOR, the e-mail that crossed my desk the other day. I'd love to share the complete text of it with you, but I can't, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

It was the tale of an athlete—not an American—who is now at an age where massive breakthroughs happen infrequently. Last year he moved to the fringes of world class and this year, after taking a leave of absence from his job to train full-time, he has ramped it up another notch. The writer said the secret seems to be that the athlete simply used to train too hard and that a new coach has emphasized quality over quantity. And it's a program that's already bearing ripe fruit.

Reading that bit of e-mail really moved me. I—and I think most of you—love few things more than when athlete comes from nowhere with little warning. Particularly an older athlete who after years of being mediocre suddenly finds the magic he or she has been seeking for so many years. Some of my greatest memories in the sport have come from such scenarios.

But then came the writer's last paragraph: "I didn't want to post this [to the chatroom on the T&FN website] because of the inevitable slew of unfounded insinuations that it might provoke on the subject of pharmaceutical aids."

Wham! There it was, just like somebody dropping a 16lb shot on your foot. A harsh reminder of one of the worst things the dopers have done to the sport. They've all but eliminated the sense of wonder that the out-of-the-blue performers used to give us. And while the blame lies solely on their shoulders, they are being aided and abetted by Internet yahoos who—as my writer made so plain—can't stand to see any kind of miracle breakthroughs. They immediately yell "drugs!" whenever anything surprising happens.

It's such a tragic situation that when I wrote the first draft of this column, at the point where I said "some of my greatest memories..." originally inserted a few classic examples from throughout the years. But then I excised them, simply because I didn't want anybody to read a name and say to themselves, "You know, on reflection I guess he probably was dirty; I just didn't realize it at the time."

And that for people from eras where steroids, EPO and HGH didn't exist.

But exist they do, and they continue to bedevil the sport. All sports. And while the marks may have gotten better because of it, the world has not been made a better place.

I want my sense of wonderment back, dammit!

[Distressing historical footnote: several months after this column appeared, the athlete mentioned at the top of the story crushed the author of the original e-mail to me by testing positive.]