What Does Sprinter Tyson Gay’s Positive Test Mean For Drug Use In Sports?

Tyson Gay (right) and Asafa Powell compete in South Korea in 2009. (Credit: AP)

American sprinter Tyson Gay, the second-fastest 100-meter runner in world history, announced Sunday that he had tested positive for a banned substance and that he was pulling out of the track-and-field World Championships that will be held in Moscow next month. Gay’s announcement came the same day that Jamaica announced that five athletes, including sprinter Asafa Powell, had tested positive for banned substances as well.

Both Gay and Powell’s positive tests occurred on their A-samples, and they won’t face disciplinary action until a matching B-sample tests positive as well. It’s still possible, if unlikely, that neither Gay nor Powell used banned substances. It’s also possible that neither did so knowingly. “I don’t have a sabotage story,” Gay said. “I basically put my trust in someone and I was let down.” Regardless, the very existence of positive tests is another negative for a sport that already carries a cheating stigma, and it’s a big one: together, Powell and Gay are responsible for 14 of the 24 fastest 100-meter times in sprinting history.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Not in this sport, where all greatness is defined in mere moments, where the difference between gold and nothing can often be measured in hundredths of a second, where setting a new record matters almost as much as winning the race. And we shouldn’t be surprised by these two athletes, either, no matter how noble and humble we think they might be.

Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell have spent every day since the 2008 Olympics attempting to run out of the shadow of Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet. Gay is maybe the most technically-sound sprinter to ever live, but he’s never appeared on an Olympic podium as an individual in part because of bad luck and in part because of Bolt. Powell is one of the greatest Jamaican sprinters ever, and right now, he’s the third-fastest guy on the island. Both covet that World’s Fastest Man title (in Powell’s case, for a second time), not to mention individual Olympic gold. But Bolt has won each of the last two Olympic gold medals and has run the three fastest times in 100-meter history. His 9.58-second world record is a tenth of a second faster than Gay has ever run and 0.14 faster than Powell’s best time (for context, 0.14 separates Powell’s 9.72, the seventh-fastest time in history, from the 9.86 world record Carl Lewis ran in 1991, which is now the 84th-fastest time).

We’re asking these guys to run faster than humans ever have and they’re stretching the limits of human possibility each time they take a stride. But they still can’t beat Bolt, who success provides another incentive for his opponents to seek a drug-infused edge, considering sprinters depend on so heavily on victory for monetary success. As long as that’s the case and as long as there are records to chase, there will be drugs. And so I find it hard to get outraged about drug use in sports anymore, and I don’t buy that average fans really care all that much either. They sure don’t care in football. They sure don’t care (anymore) in baseball. And even if sprinting isn’t the biggest sport in the world, it will again be the marquee event at the 2016 Summer Olympics. With that much money and fame on the line, particularly in a sport like sprinting, the search for an edge — any edge — seems inevitable, and either fans have learned to live with that or they’ve just become exhausted by the issue.

That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it reality, and that should influence how we react to it. I’m still not sure I fall in the legalize-and-regulate camp, but the notion that we’ll ever rid sports of performance-enhancing drugs strikes me as naive and unproductive in the overall conversation. It just isn’t going to happen, at least not without reversing the economic incentives away from athletes and toward testers or by making the penalties ridiculously severe, and I don’t think either of those are desirable changes. That makes legalization and regulation of at least of some of the minor PEDs seem like a plausible solution. At the least, it’s worthy of discussion, and it might allow us to both monitor the public health effects of the drugs and quit speculating about every Tyson Gay or Chris Davis and feigning shock whenever an athlete chasing eternal fame and glory and millions of dollars gets caught looking for a shortcut to get there.