The revelations on Wednesday of widespread drug use in track and field left those involved in the business side of the sport more than a little concerned.
Promoters and agents said that the sport’s image has been further tainted at the Canadian inquiry, in which Ben Johnson’s coach has painted a bleak picture of extensive use of anabolic steroids.
To what extent the sport has suffered, however, none would predict.
“This has the potential of being as powerful as baseball’s 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal,” said Chuck Galford, a road race promoter from Portland, Ore. “It has hurt the sport’s image a lot. If it results in positive action in cleaning up the abuses, perhaps there will be a happy ending. Maybe it’s time somebody stood up and spoke out.”
Galford echoed the hopes of the business community with interests in a sport whose image has been badly damaged, most recently at the Seoul Olympics.
There, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s urine sample tested positive for steroids after he had won the gold medal in the 100 meters. Johnson, the world record-holder, was stripped of his medal and has become the center of a national controversy.
The Canadian government is conducting a special hearing at Toronto to determine the extent of abuses in the sport. The inquiry has focused on Johnson and his coach, Charlie Francis, among others.
Francis’ testimony Wednesday gave insight into the extent of the sport’s steroid problem.
“Ben Johnson showed us how close track and field was becoming to professional wrestling,” said Alvin Chriss, an official of The Athletics Congress, the U.S. governing body for track and field.
“What Charlie Francis said is not at all surprising. We can’t say we knew it in a legal way that we can take action on it. But we knew it.
“Ben Johnson’s loss of a medal was an injury to the sport. We have realized in the TAC that if there is no more Ben Johnson, the sport has suffered a wound that may not heal, that will fester and grow worse.”
Drew Mearns, president of Heritage Group, a Cleveland sports promotion firm that represented Johnson, said the outcome may be an overall cleansing of the sport.
Mearns, who encouraged Johnson to speak truthfully after his positive test, also thinks that the latest revelations may help Johnson.
“In a funny kind of way, it might help redeem Ben, that he is part of the system,” Mearns said. “He is not one of 10 out of 15,000 Olympic athletes. He is one of 50%, 60% or 70%.”
But Mearns admitted that the message of seeing Ben Johnson win with steroids is ambiguous.
“I don’t think the message is that you have to cheat to win,” he said. “The message is if you want to win and be good, you should do what Ben Johnson does . . . take vitamins or take steroids. You ought to use everything scientific, pharmacological and technological available to you. It is an unclear message.”
The message from track fans, however, may be more definitive.
Indoor promoters lamented over decreased attendance at their events this winter, partly, they say, because of the Seoul drug scandal.
“Some of the fans read this stuff and say the heck with it,” said Gordon Morris, a promoter of The Times/Eagle Indoor Games.
Morris said the negative publicity makes it difficult to attract borderline fans. He also is concerned with attracting sponsors.
“Sponsors would want to be associated with a nice and clean event,” he said. “This is going to hurt track and field.”
However, Al Franken, promoter of the Sunkist meet in Los Angeles, said the steroid controversy will have no more effect on the sport than a cocaine arrest in the National Football League.
“It certainly is a blemish,” he said. “The people do equate steroids with cocaine and heroin, but the track people are pretty clean, considering other sports. Track and field is being singled out unfairly.”
Morris, on the other hand, said unlike a team sport, one individual’s drug use can be damaging. “You can’t get lost in the shuffle, like in a team sport,” he said.
John Andreliunas, running promotions director for Reebok, predicted that shoe companies would be more prudent in sponsoring athletes. But he added that the sport will thrive despite the problems.
“Track has to come clean and win back the respect,” he said. “We worry about the image for sure. But something had to give.”
Galford, the Portland race promoter, said: “Track and field is a very pure type of event. The beauty of it is that it shows what human potential is. To have that tainted through the use of steroids or blood doping to enhance performance is a real slap in the face.”
Anita DeFrantz, president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles and a member of the International Olympic Committee, said that although track is the premier sport of the Summer Games, its problems will not damage the Olympic movement.
“I hope the integrity of other athletes will pull through and perhaps lead the way,” she said.