Earlier this week, I met with a former world-class marathon runner, Mark Plaatjes. Mark grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era before immigrating to the U.S. 25 years ago. He won more than 20 major marathons, including a gold medal at the 1993 world track & field championships, three weeks after gaining his American citizenship. Now 50, Mark is a famed physiotherapist (the career he chose rather than becoming a doctor as he didn’t agree with the liberal use of drugs in medicine); he’s part-owner of a chain of running shoe stores in Colorado; and he’s a much-respected coach, training both elite and age-group runners.
I got to talk with Mark because he was working on my right foot for that irritatingly painful injury called plantar fasciitis. His treatment included deep massage (more like a deep squeeze!) down the length of my foot that was so painful it put tears in my eyes when I wasn’t stifling a scream. If I’d known it would be that bad, I said, I’d have taken a couple of Advil before coming. “That wouldn’t have made much difference,” Mark said, with authority.
Pain comes in many different varieties, but the one I was feeling right then hurt just as much as that burning sensation you get in your leg muscles when you’re hanging on for dear life at the end of a fast-moving paceline. It made me think of an early passage in Tyler Hamilton’s new autobiography “The Secret Race” where he’s running up a ski slope, racing the chairlift, and writes: “I could hear the pain, but I didn’t have to listen to it.”
In between my muffled screams from Mark’s massage table, we got to talking about sports, ethics and drugs. Our conversation soon turned to the revelations that emerged from last week’s release of the USADA report on the U.S. Postal Service team, and how the riders who gave evidence all talked about their use of erythropoietin (EPO), human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone, steroids and blood doping in the decade up to 2006, and how team leader Lance Armstrong did the same.
Mark said he wasn’t surprised by the revelations. “Everyone knows about doping in cycling,” he said, as he inserted cold needles into my foot. Mark comes from the school of hard knocks. When he began running as a teenager, his brother Ralph, 20 years older, coached him by riding a bike behind Mark, holding a brick, and—according to a 1994 New York Times interview—saying to him, “Run faster, you bastard, or I’ll hit you with this.” Another time, after Mark moved to the States and settled in Boulder, Ralph sent him a brick in the mail to encourage him to train harder!
That reminded me of a story Armstrong’s stepfather Terry Armstrong told me a few years ago about his parental attitude toward a young Lance in his early efforts at BMX racing. “One time, he went to a race and fell off his bike,” Terry Armstrong said. “I went over to him and saw he was crying. I picked him up and said, ‘We’re finished.’ And he goes, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘If you’re gonna come out here and quit and cry, we’re done,’ I said. ‘I’m not gonna have a quitter.’”
Nobody called Armstrong a quitter after that, and through his teenage years, he became a winner in swimming, cross-country running, triathlon and then bike racing. And, only 12 months after he turned pro at age 20, Armstrong won the world road championship in a solo break, beating the likes of Tour de France champ Miguel Induráin and a host of one-day classics’ winners. Armstrong, coincidentally, won that world cycling crown in August 1993 just two weeks after Mark Plaatjes became the world marathon champion.
Early in my physiotherapy session with Mark this week, I suggested that he was lucky to have become a winning marathoner before EPO was a truly major problem in sports. He agreed. Mark then expressed his shock when I said I’d just read an article in Monday’s New York Times about the second-grade American runner Christian Hesch who injected EPO into his arm more than 50 times over the past two years and improved so much that he won $40,000 in prize money in that period—but because the events he entered didn’t attract elite competitors he was never tested by USADA or USA Track & Field.
Mark then informed me about a “30 for 30” documentary he’d seen the night before on ESPN. It was about the 100-meter final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics where winner Ben Johnson broke the world record and was later stripped of his gold medal for a steroid positive. The film director interviewed all eight athletes in that sprint final, six of whom have since been implicated in drug scandals. Talking about the film’s disclosures, Mark was surprised to learn how some of those sprinters, besides taking steroids, had been using EPO (which had then just become available on the black market) and HGH to build muscle and red-blood-cell counts to be competitive.
Mark went on to tell me about the late American female sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner, who was widely suspected of drug use after winning the 100- and 200-meter gold medals at that same Olympics, though she never tested positive for steroids. Her world records for those two sprint distances still stand 24 years later, and she remains an inspiration and role model for many young athletes.
Because of the current revelation of doping practices in the media, Mark said he thinks “all this publicity is going to cause an explosion.” When I asked him to elaborate, he said he feared there would be a sharp rise in the number of everyday athletes using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), partly because it’s just as easy to buy them here as it seems to be in Europe or online. Hesch, the long-distance runner who admitted to EPO use this week, said he had no trouble buying EPO relatively cheaply in the Los Angeles area.
Turning to the increasing use of PEDs in high-school sports, including football, baseball and track & field, Mark cited the infamous survey in which high-school athletes were asked if they’d use drugs that would help them to win, even if it meant those drugs would kill them within a few years—and about three-quarters of the students said they would still use them.
That “win at all costs” mentality is something that emerges from reading the testimonies of the riders who detailed their past doping practices in the USADA investigation; and the reasons they gave for their transgressions (pressure from team personnel, not wanting to lose, every one is doing it) are not unlike those given by athletes who begin doping in high school. There used to be a more innocent time.
“When I grew up in South Africa there were no drugs in the schools,” Mark said. “There was just maybe a little talk about them.” That’s in stark contrast to the situation three decades later. When the South African edition of Sports Illustrated surveyed high school rugby players earlier this year, 57 percent of them said they were aware of other players using PEDs. One said, “Drugs are just a phone call away, even at school.” And all of the elite under-18 players interviewed said that doping was a major problem in schoolboy rugby—which led SI South Africa to comment: “The players’ willingness to break the code of silence so prevalent in professional sport should be applauded.”
We’ve all heard that code of silence described with the Italian word omertà—which in Mafia culture is described as a code of honor that includes not interfering with the illegal actions of others and not cooperating with the authorities. Breaking it can end in death. The punishment in sports, including cycling, won’t end your life but individuals who have spoken out have sometimes been forced to end their careers or had their reputations destroyed.
That situation is slowly changing in cycling. It really began in 2007 with the admissions of EPO use by ex-Team Telekom riders Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm and Erik Zabel, who are now well-respected team directors or coaches. And there’s a chance that the process can now accelerate with the coming out of riders who have testified in USADA’s investigation into the Postal team’s alleged doping conspiracy.
Other than Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton—who both fought positive anti-doping tests for years before admitting to their drug use—the confessions of their former teammates only came after they were subpoenaed two years ago in the federal investigation into the Postal team. That case was abruptly ended last February, but the riders have since repeated their evidence to the USADA investigators and given the most damning evidence in the report made public last week.
Armstrong never testified before the grand jury because he was the subject of the federal investigation, but it was mainly the testimonies of his former teammates—especially George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde—that earlier this week led Nike to end its 16-year-long endorsement contract with the Texan because of the “seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade.”
All of his other principal sponsors have since jumped ship and left Armstrong’s sporting reputation in tatters. He has a chance to salvage his role as an inspirational cancer survivor when he speaks at the 15th anniversary celebration of his Livestrong foundation this weekend. Whatever Armstrong says, I know that, like the rest of the world, Mark Plaatjes and I will be talking about it when I return for another painful session of physiotherapy on Monday morning. And I won’t take any Advil.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson