Yesterday, two-time Ironman World Champion and current women’s world record holder Chrissie Wellington published the complete history of her drug tests on her website. In her Facebook announcement she stated her hope that the move would promote “transparency, accountability and dialogue.” Wellington is an established pillar of Ironman. Besides her accomplishments in the sport, she also possesses a grace rarely found among athletes of such athletic and competitive caliber. Combined with her philanthropic efforts, she currently stands as the preeminent ambassador of the sport. But what importance does her disclosure hold, if any? In short, the answer is “quite a bit,” and while it begins with Wellington’s stature within the Ironman community, it also goes far beyond it.
Wellington has single-handedly brought about a poential watershed moment in triathlon.
To begin with, there’s no ignoring that she’s taking the first step in starting the dialogue. Her power to overcome the heavy silence plaguing drug testing lies in her status as one of the world’s premier endurance athletes. Her regular appearance in the top ten in races and her world record have not only put her in the spotlight, they have also drawn the fire of skeptics and witch hunters. Anyone so dominant in any sport quickly becomes a target of conspiracy theorists and scandal mongers. Consequently, Wellington’s disclosure is an open challenge to all comers. “Take a look,’ she says. “I’m an open book.” Wellington did not publish complete, multi-page lab reports showing types of drugs tested for or experimental methods, nor should she be expected to. Some data is of extremely personal nature and could be used against her, while other elements of these reports could be used by bad actors to beat the system in the future. In this, Wellington has done enough to show how often she’s been tested. Those who’ve been hounding her now have to call the dogs off, which leads to the next significant consequence—where next to send them?
What drugs were tested, and what methods were used? These questions should be directed toward the agencies responsible for managing the process. If the recent snafu that is the Alberto Contador case is any indication, the techniques used for testing can at times be as suspect as the athletes themselves. As Juvenal put it, “who watches the watchmen?” When fractions of a millimole define the threshold between a champion and a pariah, there’s no room for lab techs with questionable ethics or botched “B” samples. Wellington, no more than any other athlete, can only be held accountable for so much. For the drug testing system to work, tester and tested must be scrutinized. Wellington’s publication names the organizations that conducted the tests. A comparison of their standards and measures would make for an interesting start to the dialogue.
Equally important is Wellington’s demonstration that her accomplishments were clean. This is significant not only for Ironman, but for all endurance sports. London will host the 30th Olympiad in 2012. In all those games, we’ve seen countless records broken. We’re in an age where human achievement might be defined more by technology than biology. The record for the mile, broken at least once in every decade since 1913, hasn’t budged from 3:43:13 since 1999. It seems sometimes that inspiration hit the wall at the dawn of the 21st century. When Wellington or Usain Bolt raise the bar, we automatically assume something is afoul. Wellington’s unprovoked disclosure works to restore our faith that mankind has yet to reach the limits of his potential—and that we can continue toward it without assistance
Finally, the most important element at play is Wellington’s character. She is one of the most friendly and generous people in the sport. She understands the power of empathy, and she will wield it to great advantage as the dialogue she hopes for gets underway. This is paramount to any meaningful discussion about drug testing, because if it goes far enough it will undoubtedly uncover a few cheaters and possibly mistakenly indict some innocent athletes. Combined with the lack of understanding of what goes on behind the lab doors, the fear of being punished according to a zero-tolerance policy has maintained athletes’ reluctance to speak on this issue for years. Deep down, every athlete has a small fear that stricter regulations could lead to erroneous ends to their careers. Anyone who races professionally and calls for draconian measures against doping grips a double-bladed sword and incurs the consequences of an errant swing. That’s why it’s so important that Wellington leads this charge. She’s not challenging anyone to meet her on some field of judgment. She’s inviting everyone to come out and join her. This is about “transparency, accountability and dialogue” within the system first. How we deal with those working outside of it is a secondary concern. There has never been a better chance to start with a clean slate, because there’s never been a moment where the slate could be wiped so clean.
On that, Wellington has single-handedly brought about a poential watershed moment in triathlon. And make no mistake, it is not for time to tell. This is an idea whose time came long ago. It is for the professional community to tell us whether the movement will gain followers. If it doesn’t, then shame on us all, because it could have no better leader.