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home > community > viewpoint > the mary slaney case: here we go again

The Mary Slaney Case: Here We Go Again
Gee, it's been a tough couple of weeks for running. Just when we were recovering from the Murphy's, it seems Mary Slaney is undergoing a USATF drug investigation, stemming from last year's Olympic Trials. This one is going to be really tough for fans of the sport to handle. Slaney has been a big part of the running landscape for the better part of three decades. She has grown up along with the sport, right through the running boom and beyond. She has won just about everything there is to be won, except an Olympic medal. Her pursuit of that goal has been an ongoing soap opera, ever since she was inadvertently tripped in the 3000 meter Olympic final in 1984 by a then barefoot teenager named Zola Budd.

  
The Mary Slaney Case: Here We Go Again

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By Don Allison
Posted Thursday, 15 May, 1997

Gee, it's been a tough couple of weeks for running. Just when we were recovering from the Murphy's, it seems Mary Slaney is undergoing a USATF drug investigation, stemming from last year's Olympic Trials. This one is going to be really tough for fans of the sport to handle. Slaney has been a big part of the running landscape for the better part of three decades. She has grown up along with the sport, right through the running boom and beyond. She has won just about everything there is to be won, except an Olympic medal. Her pursuit of that goal has been an ongoing soap opera, ever since she was inadvertently tripped in the 3000 meter Olympic final in 1984 by a then barefoot teenager named Zola Budd.

This investigation will likely take its place alongside the Ben Johnson and Butch Reynolds episodes as the biggest drug scandals in track and field history. Johnson tested positive, then later admitted his guilt, after steadfastly denying his culpability for months. His tearful admission garnered little sympathy, especially among Canadians. Reynolds was outraged by his test result, blaming the IAAF for shoddy testing procedures. Reynolds produced his own negative samples, taken at the same time as the IAAF's supposed positive samples were drawn. He took the IAAF court, and eventually overturned the charge. It took more courage and fortitude than any 400 meter race ever did, but Reynolds fought on, eventually returning to competition. He made the 1996 Olympic team, but fell to a hamstring injury in the early rounds. The 400 meter world record holder is felt by most to have gotten a raw deal from the IAAF, having had his best years taken by this alleged erroneous IAAF test.

So we have two cases, one in which guilt is a foregone conclusion (Johnson), the other in which most think it is not (Reynolds). So now we have Mary Slaney, and what are we to think? Here are the facts: Slaney is believed to have tested positive for an illegally high testosterone level. Of course testosterone is a boon to almost all athletes, including track and field competitors. Testosterone is produced naturally by the body. Men produce more than women, giving them male characteristics, including greater strength, which is the reason men have an advantage in sport. Slaney's testosterone result was above the IAAF's limit, which is generally thought to be quite a liberal standard. Slaney denies any guilt, going so far as to be outraged at USATF for leaking the story of the investigation to the New York Times.

This is to be expected, of course. There is yet to be an athlete who tests positive that immediately admits guilt. In this way, drug charges are similar to the race cheating allegations we witnessed earlier this month. The athlete categorically denies they cheated in any way. Even when caught red-handed, as the Murphy's were, they drum up a flimsy excuse, such as "We wore T-shirts under our numbers." An athlete found to have tested positive will say they have never taken performance enhancing drugs of any kind, that the procedures were faulty, and that they have routinely produced negative results for years. This is the tack Slaney has taken.

If anyone has had an up and down, rollercoaster career, it has been Mary Slaney. Beloved as the tiny teen queen of track in the 70s, Slaney's reputation took a dive in 1984, when her petulant response to the tripping incident cost her much public goodwill. It's always been hard to love Slaney, as she always seemed to be carrying heavy attitude baggage. In recent years however, Slaney has become more accepted, especially as he has survived in the sport by fighting back from injury after injury. Finishing second at last years' 5000 meter Olympic Trials, the crowds unstintingly cheered her success. Ironically, this is the very event in which Mary Slaney supposedly exceeded the testosterone limit.

It will take a lengthy investigation before anyone can even speculate on Slaney's guilt or innocence, but one question we might speculate on is this: Do a large number of track athletes use performance enhancing drugs? If they do, should you care? Is it just elite athletes who do this, or is your age-group competition gaining an unfair advantage?

A world renown coach, who will remain anonymous once told me "every single world class athlete, and a large percentage of national class athletes," were all using performance enhancing drugs. He insisted that this did not preclude anyone, even distance runners and the superstars who were held up as role models for young athletes. That's one hell of a charge, especially for someone supposedly in the know. When I heard this, my reaction was similar to the one I had when I heard Ben Johnson had high octane urine: disgust and disappointment. I mean, how can you take a competition seriously, when one id unsure whether any or all of the competitors might be gaining an unfair edge from a synthetic substance. That's not what sport is all about, is it?

The IAAF and IOC have made big pronouncements about its improved testing procedures and out of competition testing in recent years, but whether this has been effective is still open to question. Dr. Robert Voy, the director of drug testing for the USOC at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, says "Athletes are a walking laboratory, and the Olympics have become a proving ground for scientists, chemists, and unethical doctors." Dr. Donald Catlin, a director of an IOC accredited drug testing lab, says, "The sophisticated athlete who wants to take drugs can switch to things we can't test for." In the face of all of this information, I still found myself riveted to the television last July to watch the rounds and finals of the track events. Sure, when I saw some of the sculpted bodies being sported by the sprinters, the illegal substance issue briefly crossed my mind, but only briefly. I think we all really want to believe athletes are honest. That's why stories such as the Slaney one are so shocking and disappointment.

Like anything in life, there is some gray area involved in these matters. A nationally ranked athlete once told me that coaches were the primarily culprits. They would provide the athletes with "supplements" or "vitamins," which would "improve recovery." This athlete insisted some runners had no idea they were even using illegal substances. The USOC banned substance list is a very long one. Caffeine is an illegal substance, so is ephedrine, which is found in over the counter cold medicine. If I have two cups of expresso before a road race or fight of a cold with heavy doses of Nyquil, am I taking "illegal drugs." Is this the same as injecting an extract of human growth hormone? Where does one draw the line? Clearly, drinking coffee is far less flagrant than injecting Hgh, but rules are rules. If you can beat the system but taking masking agents or clearing your system before competition, the rules will not prevent you from winning medals.

You can take the subway in the New York or Boston Marathons too, and if no one catches on, you can get away with it. In the end, sports such as running are a test of athletic skills. To cheat in any way harms the sport in an irreparable way, however small. The allegations against Mary Slaney are only that, but nonetheless are one more hit to a sport that is already reeling from too many in recent history.

 

 

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