One of the things I have tried in the past to stay away from have been controversial topics and opinions, but I think the time has come where that needs to change. I will now occasionally use this blog to share opinions on things, because I need to be honest with athletes if I am truly a figurehead in the endurance sports world. Which leads me to the first topic....
Ryan Hall announced his retirement this week. At 33 years of age, a number of injuries and other setbacks, it seems we've all been a bit bummed that he couldn't return to the form he showed at Boston in 2011, and London in 2008, where he broke 2:07 at both. Boston was the fastest time any American had ever covered the marathon distance, at 2:04:58. It was amazing, in a word. But it was also not a World Record, as the course was point to point, with net downhill. And that asterisk on that performance is a metaphor for Ryan's career.
I watched Ryan grow through the sport, with some amazing races, going back to high school in Big Bear. At Stanford, racing Dathan Ritzenhein at the NCAA XC Champs, and then onto the track beyond that. His sub 1-hour half marathon is probably one of the most amazing American performances I will see in my lifetime. He has worked harder than most athletes, much less people, will ever know. He has sacrificed and made commitments, risked his health in training, and hoped for things to work out. But, there will always be an asterisk in mind.
When Ryan* became part of an investigation into a doctor, and Alberto Salazar, in regard to thyroid medication, I had to step back and reconsider my thoughts on Ryan*. I had to put an asterisk on everything he had done. (Sadly, for a publication like the NYT, I am disappointed they didn't even discuss the topic in the article, it's a critical piece of the full story.)
I was at a small, informal meeting of Ryan* and some high school runners here in San Diego a few years ago, and I had promised not to say or mention the thyroid medication at the event, as I was a guest of a friend, a local coach. Why did I go? I was hopeful he would speak to some of the decisions he had made, times in his life where even though it maybe wasn't "illegal" to take thyroid medication, he knew the difference between right and wrong. He had a chance to teach these young minds that performance is great, but being a great person is better. He didn't. No mention of it.
I'm not saying Ryan Hall* is a bad person, I don't know him. He probably treats the people in his life with much love and appreciation, as he interviews well, and sounds very humble. He probably gives a lot to his community. (But of course, Lance gave a lot to his community too). He is clearly a God-fearing man, but I wonder how he convinced himself that using a medication that was clearly suspect in its ethical use and promoted to him as a way to perform better, was ok. I wonder if he would stand in front of his church, or a group of students, or even his own kids, and say, "If you can find a short-cut in life, take it! If it's questionably ethical, who cares? If it's not illegal, do it!"
That's what Ryan* did. He took a shortcut, because Salazar and those around him told him it was ok, and he chose to be a sheep, rather than thinking for himself. He knew better. I've read his tweets and interviews for years, where he talks and preaches about being a good Christian man, and yet he can't find the difference between right and wrong when it matters the most to his passion and career? If he made a mistake, ok, then admit it and use it to better the world. Explain the challenges of being under pressure, trying to live as a professional athlete against the best in the world. But he didn't do that. He denied it was unethical. Claimed his thyroid just wasn't working right, so it wasn't cheating. This is like saying my adrenal glands don't work right when I am training 40+ hours per week, so I need testosterone treatments to help it. Sorry man, doesn't work that way. (Ironically, the NYT article link discusses this exactly above, as that has been his argument, which only disappoints me more, based on the hypocrisy of the original choice to use the thyroid meds. He knows right and wrong.) And is it any real surprise that after the thyroid medication exposure, in late 2012, he never achieved the same level as 2011? Maybe it was a performance enhancer after all? Newsflash: endurance athletes who train extensively affect their hormone levels. Those who want to off-set the negative effects of training take substances to off-set them. They're called DOPERS. They use testosterone or thyroid, or insert whatever drug here _____.
He and his wife Sarah have 4 adopted kids, and I have no reason to think they aren't great, loving parents, but I hope he uses this experience as a teachable moment for them. He has failed so far in doing that with the rest of the world.
So, sorry to say I am not celebrating Ryan Hall's* retirement. I am instead somber about a great talent and person who was tainted by the lure of the shortcut, of drugs in our sports. Some, (or perhaps many), will disagree, as he has accomplished a number of incredible things in running. But once credibility is lost, what can we really trust was truly accomplished by Ryan*, and not the drugs?
Ryan Hall* will always be the way I think of him. The asterisk being the symbol of an athlete who chose the shortcut. Please choose differently if you find yourself in similar situations.