A group of French officials snooping around locker rooms and investigating a sweaty gym bag for old syringes and stale pills showed me how cynical I've grown about doping culture in track and field.
Let me explain.
On Monday, A French TV program called “Stade 2” reported that public health officers found some syringes and potentially illegal medication in Algerian middle-distance runner and three-time Olympic medalist Taoufik Makloufi’s equipment bag, which he left behind at a training facility in March. For now, it's unknown whether or not those materials actually belong to him.
But I absolutely think they do. And the fact that I (and most track nerds I've spoken with) are so fast to dismiss him as a cheater is alarming to me.
I partly chalk up my skepticism to the fact that the athlete in question is Makloufi, the 2019 World Athletics Championship 1,500m runner-up who seems to disappear for years on end, only to peak magically for large events. The 32-year-old Algerian whose chronological prime more or less coincides with Algerian President Mustapha Berraf's claim that "Algerian athletes are not working, but they are doping to achieve results at the national level to qualify and compete in high-level international competitions." The runner who made thousands of people across the world utter "who's that?" when he ran away from world class superstarts like Abdalaati Iguider of Morocco and Matt Centrowitz of the US in the 2012 Olympic final, flopping his tongue to the camera through an easy grin. ("That guy? Doping? No way!")
But my cynicism mainly comes from years of being constantly deceived by my heroes, who have collectively eroded my belief in clean sport. I found myself a fool when Russian whistleblowers and Bryan Fogel exposed Russia's massive state sponsored doping program in Academy Award-winning film Icarus in 2016 and 2017. I felt stupid when Alberto Salazar was found a cheater and banned for four years in 2019 (especially because I'd spent six long days of my life reading his book 14 minutes). And I feel straight up cheated every time I hear that banned substances are infiltrating Kenya's ostensibly pure and divine rift valley.
It seems like every time I let the presumption of innocence guide my judgment, the innocent one ends up being, well, me. So, like the spouse of a frequent adulterer, or a kid who's outgrown their Jack-in-the-Box, I've become so jaded and unflinching in the face of unpleasant surprises in athletics that I now expect them before they come.
But that's enough about me.
Track and field has a cynicism problem. As soon as an athlete becomes linked to a doping allegation, or even posts an impressive result, we whisper and roll our eyes. How cynical have we become? Let's use the curious case of Christian Coleman as an example.
For those who stopped paying attention to sprinting when Usain Bolt retired, Coleman has been the world's top 100m runner in each of the last three years. His 9.76 makes him the sixth fastest man in history. Earlier this week, it was announced that Coleman will miss next year's Tokyo Olympics after the Athletics Integrity Unit determined that he recorded three whereabouts failures for anti-doping tests over a 12-month period.
Coleman has never tested positive for any banned substance. Yet, he's become a sort of pariah and laughing stock of the athletics community (which tends to happen when you skip a drug test to go to Chipotle, I suppose.)
People aren't buying that Coleman's whereabout failures were honest mistakes, and not nefarious dodges to prevent a positive test. Case in point: this Twitter thread (why Coleman engages with his hecklers, I have no idea):
It's difficult to believe Coleman. Nine men in history have run 9.80 or faster. Every single one of them — except for Bolt — has faced a doping charge or allegation. In fact, as far as we are concerned, the tall Jamaican singlehandedly saved sprinting not only for his fast times, but for his apparently clean doping record. Had Coleman eventually retired without a ban, he also would have been an anomaly.
It's just as difficult to believe Makloufi, who rose to prominence a decade ago, when middle distance running was in a serious state of peril. Four finalists in the women's 1,500m at the 2012 London Olympics — including the gold and silver medalists - were retroactively banned from the race on doping charges.
For that reason, it's not just fans and trolls that doubt recent allegations. Even athletes themselves are distrustful. Canadian 1,500m runner and 2016 Olympian Charles Philibert-Thiboutot said that when he first made his mark in the professional ranks five years ago, he figured two or three athletes per Olympic final of 12 used banned substances. Now, he perceives it to be closer to seven or eight.
"We can't think about (the number of athletes who might be doping), because when we do it's demoralizing," he said. "But when someone faces serious allegations, we have to talk about it, denounce it, and defend the integrity of clean athletes... that's how we beat this thing long term."
We can't do much about the fact that doping is assaulting the integrity of athletics. What we can control is our response. While cynicism helps guard against corrupt actors, interest about the sport ultimately depends on the presumption of innocence. Does that mean we should assume that Makloufi and Coleman are clean? Not necessarily. It means we shouldn't presume their competitors are dirty.
Over the last decade, Usain Bolt, carbon plated shoes, and Eliud Kipchoge (whose times have nothing to do with the shoes - he said so himself) have re-defined human limitations. As evolving training methods and better technology continue leading to better results, we have two options: choose to believe good performances when they come, or make stale jokes about wanting to get hooked up with Joshua Cheptegei's EPO supplier.
That's our job as followers of the sport — to have the courage to trust. Meanwhile, Kipchoge, Bolt, Cheptegei Hassan, Farah, Giday, Kosgei et al are tasked to keep producing negative samples. If all parties hold their end of the bargain, maybe, in time, we can become optimists again.