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Don’t Be So Quick To Label Almaz Ayana A Doper

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Almaz Ayana is a dirty, no-good doper.

After crossing the finish line of the Olympic 10,000m in 29 minutes and 17 seconds, a new Olympic and World Record, Ayana officially cemented her position as a cheat in the eyes of many pundits. After all how could anyone be so dominant without drugs? It is almost a given that there were dopers in that race and so if she could beat them by that much then she must be taking more drugs than them!

Steve Magness tweeted this after the race and was quick to point out that Ayana's performance was a full 36 seconds ahead of the next best non-doped time**. He then posted a table by Jack Daniels showing equivalent performances. Presumably this move was to show how much better, and therefore unlikely, Ayana's performance in Rio was.

I don't mean to single out Magness, either. He was just one of many analysts, scientists and fans who questioned Ayana's performance or simply ignored it and instead chose to focus on congratulating the likes of American Molly Huddle who finished almost a minute back in a new American Record.

However, to me these arguments just don't hold weight. How can we argue that Ayana's performance is that of a cheat? I do agree that being affiliated with dopers or being very much better than the field might be circumstantial evidence that an athlete is doping but none of it is in itself the evidence. Until an athlete tests positive, is caught with drugs or admits to their use, I don't see how we can say they are doped.

To me, this seems at best like poor sportsmanship and at worst racist and bigoted. I'm not saying that being skeptical of these performances is wrong. I am skeptical, too. What am I against is this obstinate conviction with which I have seen experts and fans alike remark that Ayana must be doped. Last I checked, there was no known speed-limit on human performance. We don't know if Ayana is doping and through these accusations her performance is belittled. If she is doping or not we may never know. It seems to me that this doping discussion with which we are embroiled is hurting the magical nature of performance in sport. I think we should continue to strive towards a drug-free sport but that an active witch hunt isn't help. if anything, it's hurting.

Alternatively, the performance of Ayana may reign in a new era of women's distance running. Let me explain. From July 1943 to May 1954, the World record in the Men's mile had moved just 1.2 seconds, from 4:02.6 to 4:01.4. Exercise Physiologists believed that if a man ran much faster, their heart would explode and they would die. Then, on the 6th of May 1954 a man named Roger Bannister changed running forever. He smashed the 4 minute mile barrier and dropped more time off the record in 4 minutes than had been dropped in the previous 11 years. Bannister collapsed across the line in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. And that didn't make the record stall for another decade. Instead, it opened the flood gates. Bannister's performance opened the door for 6 men to break that record 7 more times and shave off a whopping 8.1 seconds from the world record. That's right. From 3:59.4 to 3:51.3 in just 12 years. That 3:51.3? That was run by a scrawny 19 year old from Kansas.

Bannister's performance lead the way. It broke a false ceiling and exposed a new level at which humans could run. What if what we are seeing is a new paradigm shift in women's distance running? After all, the IAAF did not even recognize the women's 10,000m World record until 1981. It wasn’t even until 1988 that they ran the first Women’s Olympic 10,000m. Misconceptions about the chemistry and biology of women’s body’s left scientists and lay-man alike saying that their uterus might fall out if they trained too hard or that women lacked the constitution to compete in these long distance events. Well women knew better.

Consider too, that these changes were happening nearly 30 years after Bannister's watershed moment. Women's distance running is a young and budding sport. To say that we are near or at the physiological limit of women's performance is not only naive, but it is selling women short.

Who knows if Almaz Ayana is doping. Who knows if that was a feat of superhuman ability, the result of heavy PED use or just the natural next step in women's distance running? I don't and unless you are Almaz Ayana (and even then) I'm not sure you know either. Only time will tell and I am certainly looking forward to it.


**The chinese women of the 1990s are not only rumoured to have been doped, but recent leaks of secret documents from the Associated Press have substantiated the claim with admissions from many of these athletes about their use of PEDs.