It’s Almost Impossible to Be a Running Fan

Doping controversies are just the start of what spectators have to worry about in this year’s Olympics.

Three sequential silhouettes of a runner jumping, distorted by scribbles
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Professional runners have to endure extraordinary deprivation, pain, and pressure to reach the Olympics. Professional-running fans, meanwhile, have to endure the question of which athletes actually deserve to be there. This summer, before the U.S. trials for the Tokyo Olympics had even finished, fans were forced to digest the fact that two of America’s track-and-field athletes most likely to medal wouldn’t be headed to the Games. Not because they’d lost to better athletes, but because they’d been caught in the snare of the anti-doping system, for better or worse.

Many would say for worse.

One of the cases is fairly cut-and-dried. The sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson ingested marijuana after getting the news that her biological mother had died. Although sentiments in the United States about marijuana have shifted considerably, and the idea of THC being performance-enhancing for her particular discipline is spurious at best, the drug is clearly banned during competition. Richardson admitted fault and accepted her penalty.

The other case is much more complicated. The distance runner Shelby Houlihan tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone, a drug that can increase muscle strength and red-blood-cell count. She claims that she inadvertently ingested the drug from a burrito. This might seem absurd, but as testing protocols have become more and more sensitive—now reliably measuring down to the level of a picogram, which is one-trillionth of a gram—meat has been shown to cause the odd failed drug test. Travis Tygart, the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who did not handle the Houlihan case, told me that the agency has handled, on average, one of these cases a year, with most of the athletes getting off with what is called a no-fault violation.

Controversies and complications involving banned substances are really just the tip of the iceberg of track spectators’ woes. Professional running is caught in the middle of a bona fide fairness crisis. Athletes’ performances are shaped by a dizzying array of factors, both legal and illegal, that have little to do with tradition or any supposed values of equal competition. The result, for anyone who actually wants to enjoy these races, is brain-scrambling.

This is not to say that being a sports fan hasn’t always been a fraught enterprise. The ancient Olympians, who were all men, competed in the nude; any woman caught in the Olympic Festival was punished by getting thrown to her death from a cliff. A reported 96.4 million viewers tuned in to the 2021 Super Bowl, despite what football does to young men’s brains. The closer you look at your favorite sport, the more likely you are to find impediments to pure, unadulterated fandom. And as the modern Olympiad’s competitions continue this week in Tokyo, running fans in particular are grappling with an ever-growing set of conflicts.

For journalists, like myself, who love running, trying to make any sense of these conflicts is all but impossible. I’ve spent much of my career exploring the unsavory corners of professional endurance sports, and everything I’ve learned has inevitably proved more complicated and nuanced than I could have imagined. We have to live with the knowledge, for example, that the world-champion sprinter Justin Gatlin’s first doping offense was caused by a substance he had been prescribed since childhood for his attention deficit disorder. But before you get too comfortable with the idea that he’s a clean athlete done wrong, remember that five years later, he failed a doping test for testosterone, and claimed that he’d been sabotaged by his massage therapist. (Gatlin was banned from sport for four years and continues to claim his innocence.)

The line of dubious claims by athletes who have been caught cheating is long: My twin died in the womb, and that’s why I have someone else’s blood cells in me; I kissed (or made love to) someone who did the drugs; someone spiked my beer with steroids; I drank too much whiskey last night, and it boosted my testosterone; there must have been strychnine in my pigeon pie.

Even if we put aside the specter of performance-enhancing drugs in running, issues of fairness exist with funding, access to training facilities, and now, equipment. Some Nike-sponsored athletes who dominated the podium at the last Olympics wore shoes that were technically illegal because they hadn’t been widely available to the public prior to the race, as World Athletics rules stipulate they should be. Nike went so far as to apparently color its road-running shoes to look like a different model in an effort to hide them from authorities. It worked. By the time lab tests proved that the shoes bestow a 4 percent efficiency benefit, on average, the races were over, and athletes who’d worn other shoes had no recourse.

This issue has gotten only more fraught since then. As other brands race to catch up, Nike has built track shoes with similar technology that have already begun rewriting the record books.

The beauty of a running race, whether on a playground or in an Olympic stadium, is that it’s primal, basic, and easy to comprehend. And the lack of affecting technology has meant, historically, that you can compare current times to those of past generations. But now, professional running has reached a place of dissonance so deep that it’s overpowering. When an athlete achieves a new record or wins a gold medal, fans are now plagued with insuperable questions. Is that person doped? Did their shoes make the difference? How many performance-enhancing prescription drugs are they on that they don’t actually need?

It’s that last one that I found so insidious during my reporting. When drug-testing advancements made doping with illicit substances harder to hide in the wake of the Lance Armstrong era, teams began employing doctors to prescribe substances that their athlete patients might not need medically, but that sure did help with oxygen transport, energy levels, recovery, and weight loss. This immense gray area remains untouched by the anti-doping agencies.

Even so—and I’m shaking my head as I write this—I can’t turn away. There is something so naturally dramatic about a footrace. The Olympics are an opportunity for athletes in a sport such as running, which Americans mostly forget about in the years between the Games, to completely change their lives by performing on the world’s biggest stage. The years of sacrifice and toil on display are genuinely breathtaking. And the excitement I feel when witnessing this is real, regardless of how mad it makes me. For now, it’s enough—just enough—for me to keep enduring the pain of being a fan.