Sunday, May 23, 2004

It is Sundizzle, Torn Slatterns and Nugget Ranchers

Running into trouble
*Track and field is in serious trouble with the BALCO steroid scandal looming right before the Olympics. How serious? Track and field is making boxing look good, and, remember, boxing has Don King and Mike Tyson.

Track and field is in trouble. It is looking more and more likely that many of our best track athletes will be banned for steroid use along with sprinter Kelli White. That might mean we wouldn’t have our best runners competing at an Olympics that won’t even be ready in time.

Come to think of it, that would be a perfect fit; our track team would be like the Athens Olympics: made from left over parts slapped together at the last minute.

I miss the good old Olympic track and field scandals when the steroid-ridden runners merely celebrated their relay wins in a wildly long and embarrassingly imbecilic fashion.

All track and field needs now is for a French official to take a Russian bribe.

Since you asked:
Back in the spring of 1992, after I had began to tire of being a mediocre-at-best Wall Street bond broker and later a La Jolla, CA stockbroker, I got the bright idea to try and hearken back to my vaunted decathlon days and try to get work full time in track and field. To make a long story short, I contacted an old Illinois high school track friend, a former coaching great and one of the most amazing guys on the planet, Steve Miller. Steve Miller just happened to then be the head of all track and field marketing for a little shoe company called Nike in Beaverton, Oregon.

As luck would have it, Nike was grooming Miller for greater things and, with Miller’s blessing, I weaseled my way into the interview process for his replacement. Suffice it to say the Nike folks soon figured out I was in a little over my head. (Think “American Idol” “She Bang” reject William Hung singing at Carnegie Hall)

To give you an idea exactly how far over my head interviewing for the head of all of track at Nike I was, one of the other people interviewing was marathon god, Alberto Salazar. Rule of thumb: don’t try and compete for a job against a guy the company named one of their main buildings. (No joke, the interviews were conducted in the Alberto Salazar building)

My final of six interviews was with Nike president Phil Knight’s right-hand bad cop dragon lady. (No need to mention names) That interview didn’t go so well to say the least. This woman was so scary that she almost had me escorted from the Nike “campus” by security because I mentioned the word Reebok. (P.S. Nike kindly labeling its own headquarters a “campus” goes a long way to sum up how arrogant, snotty and cult-like that place was . . . not that I am bitter.)

One of my earlier interviews with one of the top Nike running guys - again, no names to protect my innocence. He asked me what I thought was wrong with the state of track and field in our country as, even back then, track’s popularity was plummeting. My one word reply surprised us both:


“Do you think you might elaborate?” he asked. So, like a puppy swimming against the rapids, I began thrashing as fast as I could:

“Look, we were both in track,” which was, by itself, a hilarious presumption, as this Nike honcho was a former world-class runner, and my decathlon career had mired early at U.C. Santa Barbara due to a bad hamstring rip my senior year in high school. Regardless, I charged forth:

“We know that top track stars have vast god-given talent and are amazing athletes who probably only take drugs, steroids, for that extra winning edge. They figure that almost everyone else at the top of track is likely taking something, so, it’s an even playing field. They really don’t think of steroids as cheating but as one of the costs to compete with the best. But Joe Fan thinks these athletes were made in laboratory.”

The Nike guy gave me a sort of for-the-sake-of-argument-I will-agree look, so I launched on:

“The only time Joe Sports Fan reads or sees anything about track and field is when somebody tests positive for performance enhancing drugs. The result? You have some guy sitting on his couch drinking beer flipping the channel to a rare televised track meet and thinking ‘Well, shoot, if I took all them drugs, I could be in the Olympics too.’ So he changes the channel to watch a tractor pull contest Joe Sports fan is fairly sure is fair.

“And that,” I concluded, “is what is killing track’s popularity in this country.”

“What would you suggest?” he asked, not masking his sarcasm very well.

“Death sentences.” No lie, that’s what I said.

“Death sentences?” he asked, nonplussed.

“A lifetime ban from track for testing positive on any random test. No questions asked. If an athlete wants to compete for the US Olympic team, he or she signs a contract accepting all drug tests and their resultant penalties. No lawsuits allowed. If they don’t sign, they don’t compete. Period. Sure it will hurt at first as the headliner stars get weeded out, but it needs to happen for track to get back any credibility at all.”

As I recall, Nike-boy didn’t say anything, but sat there looking like someone was going to catch hell for his wasting valuable time interviewing such a complete and utter knucklehead.

As we finally ended our meeting, I think I closed by advising him to put all of his money into Internet related stocks, but I can’t swear to that.

But seriously, the reason I remember all this so vividly is because, A, I was so excited to be at Nike headquarters, and, B, it is one of the few times in my life when I actually turned out to be right about something. Now, I would hate to hurt the tender feeling of a behemoth, Asian child-labor abusing corporation like Nike by saying I told you so, but, Nike, I told you so.

Can I get a neener neener one time?

Granted, a death sentence solution for track isn’t very democratic and probably the A.C.L.U would fight it – a sure sign that, in and of itself, a thing is probably good – but the right to compete for your country in the Olympics, unless I am very wrong, isn’t mentioned in The Bill of Rights. To compete in the Olympics is an incredible honor that millions, myself included, would have sacrificed anything and everything; that privilege deserves to be protected by dire consequences if sullied by cheating. And, make no mistake about it, using performance enhancing drugs is cheating.

Why, Slats and Nuggies? Why, oh, why do I have to come up with all of the solutions?

(Polite applause)