“The Scarlet Letter Law” & The “Fair Play Fund”: A Look at Ben True & Adam Nelson’s Ideas for a Cleaner Sport

By Jonathan Gault
April 11, 2016

On August 18, 2004, on the same Ancient Olympia soil where the Greeks competed thousands of years ago, Adam Nelson put the shot 69′ 5¼” (21.16 meters) on his opening attempt in the Olympic final. For five rounds, it looked as if that throw would be enough to finally deliver gold to the 29-year-old American, who had finished second at the 2000 Olympics and 2001 and 2003 World Championships. But in the sixth and final round, Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonog tied Nelson’s mark. Nelson fouled his final attempt and Bilonog was declared the champion due to his superior second-best throw. Nelson received the silver medal and put it away in his sock drawer.

It’s now March 2016 and Nelson, ballcap pulled low over his round bald head, is sitting in a hotel lobby in Portland, Ore., telling me the story of how that silver was upgraded to gold. The 40-year-old Nelson, flakes of gray forming the base of his full beard, speaks in a controlled, serious manner for most of our hour-long interview, but when the subject of the 2004 Olympics comes up, his mood shifts. As he explains the details — how it took eight years for reanalysis of Bilonog’s drug test to reveal he tested positive for steroids, how Nelson was kept in the dark by the sport’s governing bodies until it came time to coordinate delivery of his gold medal (which he finally received in front of a Chinese restaurant at the food court of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in July 2013) — Nelson’s eyes begin to glow. For a second I’m worried the intensity and fury that Nelson displayed during his outstanding career will bleed outward, that the ball of energy that Nelson channeled into 20-meter throws in the shot put circle will explode right through me.

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But Nelson puts a lid on it, sinking back into his chair as his frustration shifts from the hardships he faced to the doping problems that still plague the sport today. Nelson, a government major at Dartmouth who worked as a financial consultant with Merrill Lynch after graduating, has always had options outside of track and field but remains closely involved with the sport to this day.

“As much as I wanted to put all this stuff behind me, I couldn’t do it,” Nelson said. “This sport has given and taken so much from me that I know that wherever my future takes me, I’ve got to find a way to give back to the sport and help be an advocate for change.”


“The assumption was that I was always dirty”

Currently, Nelson serves as the president of the Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA), a non-profit dedicated to supporting professional runners, jumpers and throwers (he also holds side gigs with Doyle Management Group and NBC Sports). While doping is one of several issues he hopes to address through his role with TFAA, it’s particularly close to his heart. Not only was he robbed of his moment of Olympic glory, but for much of his career, Nelson believes he was hurt by the public’s perception of shot putters.

“I have a thick neck, I’m loud and I’m strong,” Nelson said. “And when I compete, I get really, really into it. The assumption was that I was always dirty and that really used to piss me off. And as a result, I didn’t get a lot of opportunities. In fact, I was told by a number of people in the sport that said that ‘I won’t support shot putters, you guys are all dirty.’”

Nelson has learned through his own experience that for track and field to overcome its doping problems, it has to do more than just improve the testing. It took eight years for scientists to develop and use a test that could identify the steroid in Bilonog’s blood. As much as testing has improved, it’s almost impossible to stay ahead of every cheat. Nelson believes the best way to eradicate doping from the sport is to change the culture rather than “building a better mousetrap” and improving testing.

“Let’s start incentivizing a culture that doesn’t allow this behavior, that doesn’t allow as they say in cycling, this culture of omerta to form and take hold,” Nelson said.

It’s a belief echoed by anti-doping expert Dr. Michael Joyner, a physiologist and expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic.

“I think the doping control community is currently highly focused on technical solutions: better urine and blood testing and things like that,” Joyner said. “…Until they start thinking about the limits of their tests, and the fact that they set some of the cut points so that essentially you’ll never have a false-positive, you’re going to have trouble.”


“If your thyroid condition is due to having a suppressed thyroid due to training hard, then that’s baloney”

Ben True, another Dartmouth alum (Class of ’08 ) (Editor’s note: The author is Dartmouth ’13), also is not afraid to speak his mind when it comes to doping. True said that when he steps onto the track at a major international race, he’s not confident that the rest of the field is clean and admits “it’s just the sad reality.”

“It’s been tough to still get out the door and give 100% of myself to the sport knowing that I am on an uneven playing field,” True said.

One of the problems performance-enhancing drugs is determining which substances should be legal and which should not be legal.

“The way we compete, we go off of what WADA has made as that line,” True said. “I personally draw the line differently. Everyone I know kind of draws the line differently, my wife (professional triathlete Sarah True) draws the line differently. It’s hard to try to instill my beliefs on everybody.

“For example, my wife usually drinks beetroot juice, which I know a lot of athletes do leading into a competition and she has taken bisodium carbonate (I think True meant sodium bicarbonate) leading into races, both of which are completely legal and fine. But myself, I would never do that because I feel that that is the gray area. I can’t push that belief onto my wife and other people that I know do the same thing because I know that that is perfectly legal and perfectly fine in WADA’s rules.”

True became the first U.S. man to win a Diamond League 5k last year

True became the first U.S. man to win a Diamond League 5k last year

True’s personal belief is if an athlete takes a drug or supplement with the purpose of increasing performance, that’s crossing the line. It’s a tricky position to hold, however. Couldn’t almost anything be viewed as performance-enhancing? Taking Vitamin C might “help” performance by keeping an athlete healthy. Antibiotics might help a sick athlete fight off a sinus infection, which in turn would allow them to run faster than they would have without taking the drug.

“That’s why it’s hard to draw the line,” True said. “That’s the whole trick behind it. That’s why WADA have drawn the line where they have where it’s more high volumes of a particular drug.”

Because of his hardline stance, True said he doesn’t take any supplements. He does drink a lot of coffee, but never takes caffeine pills, as they cross his personal line. And even his coffee consumption is carefully monitored. Before night races, True says it’s “50-50” whether he’ll drink coffee or not because he wants to sleep afterward. As for thyroid medication, which remains legal under the WADA code? Well, you can probably predict where True stands on that one.

“If you take two weeks off from all sort of heavy training and it’s your normal body’s baseline that you have hypothyroidism or have some major medical problem, then I’m much more lenient about being able to keep your levels at that. But if your thyroid condition is due to having a suppressed thyroid due to training hard, then that’s baloney. Everybody who trains hard is going to have lower thyroid levels, decreased testosterone, different hormonal imbalances because you’re stressing your body during training. That’s a slippery slope because you can look at a whole variety of other problems. I think taking medication to artificially balance those levels is cheating.”

True spent this January training in Athens, Ga., at the same facility Nelson uses. As he ran on the AlterG, he would talk to Nelson about the sport’s doping problems. The two both believe that to meaningful progress on the anti-doping front will not come about solely from the efforts of the IAAF and WADA — it will require buy-in from everyone in the sport, especially the athletes themselves.

To that end, Nelson and True discussed several ideas that they believed would improve the culture of the sport when it came to anti-doping. True and Nelson spoke in detail to me about two of them, which are outlined below.

Idea #1 “The Scarlet Letter Law”: Athletes who have served drug bans would no longer be able to receive appearance fees from meets. Meets directors would not be able to promote these athletes before meets and during competition, they would be forced to wear a special unsponsored uniform — a sort of scarlet letter — to remind everyone watching that they had cheated.

“Anybody that’s been convicted of doping shouldn’t be a representative of the sport,” Nelson said. “They shouldn’t be a public face of our sport. They shouldn’t be the ones the meet directors are promoting, they shouldn’t be the ones the sponsors are promoting. They’re entitled to be able to compete but outside of that, that’s about it….Where I get frustrated and where I think a lot of other athletes get frustrated is where someone who is clearly cheating comes back and takes sponsorship dollars.”

However, there are several issues with this idea that make the chances of it actually being implemented small. The first is determining which athletes this rule should affect. Does someone who served a ban for a stimulant (Asafa Powell, Mike Rodgers) or inadvertent use (LaShawn Merritt) qualify? Very few athletes admit that they willingly doped.

In an ideal world, True would like to see athletes who knowingly doped serve lifetime bans, but he does not believe that is possible; he does not think lifetime bans would hold up in court, and lifetime bans present other issues, namely the chances of a false positive (a topic Ross Tucker ably discusses here). Still, the Scarlet Letter Law would face many of the same challenges that other attempts to circumvent lifetime bans have encountered.

In 2012, the British Olympic Association attempted to bar athletes Dwain Chambers and David Millar from that year’s Summer Olympics for serving doping suspensions earlier in their careers. The Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) overturned the bans, stating that, after Chambers and Millar had served their suspensions, it would be a violation of the WADA Code to impose further penalties on the athletes. A similar rule — Rule 45, also known as the Osaka Rule — was introduced by the International Olympic Committee in 2007 to ban athletes who had served a drug suspension of more than six months from competing in the next Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee argued against the rule in 2011 to allow LaShawn Merritt to compete at the 2012 Olympics, and CAS ruled in their favor. WADA considered adding the Osaka Rule to its code in 2012 but ultimately decided against it.

For the Scarlet Letter Law to be enforced, it would almost certainly have to be added to the WADA Code, which could prove difficult. If that doesn’t happen, it’s unlikely to hold up in the courts.

“I understand the emotions and wanting to crucify athletes who are sanctioned for anti-doping rules violations, but I disagree with this attitude,” said Renee Anne Shirley, former executive director of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission and outspoken anti-doping advocate. “The Scarlet Letter method would get thrown out of human rights/national courts. Once a man has served his time then you can’t keep trying to force your anger on him…

“The serious offenders, when caught, will quite likely go for substantial assistance and get significant reduction in their sanction and if they are big draws the sponsors and major events organizers will not agree to this.

“So in my opinion, the Scarlet Letter doesn’t have any chance to be implemented. If it was, exceptions would water it down so that it does not impact top draws.”

Joyner concurs that the legal challenges would prove formidable.

“Even if you had the most stringent and smartest and best possible international body handling doping control, then you’d have to get all these countries to agree to abide by their rulings and so on and so forth,” Joyner said. “And different countries have different ideas about due process and things like that.”

Idea #2 “The Fair Play Fund”: A percentage of prize money at every meet is placed into a deferred compensation fund — some sort of high-yield trust account. If, after 10 years, an athlete has not failed a drug test or received a drug suspension, he or she is entitled to the remaining portion of the prize money — plus interest. Athletes who fail drug tests would not be allowed to collect the remaining portion of their prize money, which would be reallocated to the athletes who finished behind them.

Nelson and True believe that this program offers two benefits. First, it allows clean athletes to keep more of the prize money they rightfully earned. Second, it provides a retirement fund for athletes once their careers are over. Nelson thinks that, rather than spending $4 million to double its anti-doping budget as the IAAF did earlier this year, those funds would be better served as part of a matching program implemented as part of the Fair Play Fund.

In addition, it provides a financial incentive for athletes not to dope.

“Right now the way things are, there’s [financial] really not a reason not to dope,” True said. “Because you see time and time again people who are caught still come back and not really face any real consequences out of it because the gains are able to outweigh the possible negatives. And that’s if they even get caught and their federation pursues their penalty.”

Variants on the Fair Play Fund already exist, in track and field and other industries. In 2015, in the wake of positive tests from runners Liliya Shobukhova and Rita Jeptoo, the Abbott World Marathon Majors announced that its $500,000 grand prize would be paid out over the course of five years.

This is not uncommon, there are examples of this in other industries,” Nelson said. “Almost every industry has some sort of risk-of-forfeiture-type clause or the ability to have that.”

Though the Fair Play Fund has a better chance of being implemented than the Scarlet Letter Law, there are several challenges. To start with, many professional track and field athletes rely on prize money to cover living expenses.

“There’s not an easy solution here and every solution’s going to have a downside,” Nelson said. “On balance, I’d say if you’re not in the top five or top 10 in the world in your event, you’re probably not making your living exclusively from track and field. It’s probably an even smaller number in certain events.

“I think there’s always going to be holes in any solution. You can’t change a culture by looking at the exceptions. You’ve got to look at the group that you’re really focused on, which is really the top athletes, the professionals in the sport, and if we clean that up, it’s going to trickle down.”

The other, larger issue, is how to implement an idea like the Fair Play Fund across the entire sport. Getting meets run by the IAAF, such as the Diamond League and World Championships, to abide by the same set of rules is one thing. But is it really possible for every competition, from a road race in Iowa to a cross country meet in Kenya to a marathon in China, to abide by the same guidelines when it comes to prize money?

It’s a difficult proposition, but not impossible.

“It would be interesting to see if sponsors and major event organizers want to get involved in this manner,” Shirley said. “[I’m] not sure it will get traction, but it makes sense to start the dialogue.”


The TFAA: Can a track and field athlete union actually work?

Nelson knows that major change doesn’t happen on its own, and he’s tired of watching from the sidelines as administrators dictate where the sport is going.

“Whether it’s the IOC or the IAAF or some relative of those making a rule, they make those rules behind closed doors and then push that policy out regardless of what the culture looks like and just expect that culture to actually form to this new model. That has to change. You’ve got to take a different approach and start looking at these issues from the bottom up…

“I keep seeing the same mistakes made for 40 or 50 or 60 years in a row now. I don’t see any effort to change it because the people who control the sport, honestly I think they kind of like the situation that they have. They know they have an issue with drug testing and they think that they can solve it but history says they can’t, whether it’s because the testing’s just not good enough or because they trust people who are just dirty individuals and are willing to exploit athletes to make a buck…

“My concern [with IAAF president Sebastian Coe] is that even though he’s making a lot of changes, he’s relying on the same people and the same structures and the same decision-making processes to solve these problems.”

To that end, Nelson believes that if the doping culture is to be changed, it will take all the stakeholders — athletes, agents, sponsors, governing bodies — coming together and agreeing that doping will not be tolerated. And for Nelson, that starts with the athletes.

His goal is for the TFAA, which he leads as president, to become a union with real negotiating power. Right now, federations such as the IAAF and USATF have athlete advisory boards, but nothing close to an organization such as the NFLPA or NBPA in American football and basketball.

“They’re not really empowered to do much and that’s because at the end of the day, those federations, those people in control can say, ‘That’s a great idea for you right now but we’re going to do this instead.’ Until they start recognizing the athletes as an independent stakeholder in the sport, I don’t think we’re going to see any changes.”

Of course, creating a powerful union in the sport of track and field is easier said than done. The number of disciplines, the global nature of the sport and the question of which athletes should be included in the union make uniting the world’s athletes a difficult task. How confident is Nelson that the TFAA can accomplish it?

“I’m not,” Nelson said. “Look, in my lifetime, I’ve been a part of three attempts to unionize track and field athletes. This is a fight that has been going on since the 1970s, with Prefontaine himself. Our ability to commercialize ourselves, to professionalize and manage our own brands has been totally trounced on for generations.”

Nelson recognizes the challenges facing the TFAA — earlier efforts such as the Professional Athletes Association and the first iteration of the TFAA stalled — but believes this version of the TFAA has been making progress recently after a “substantial donation” from an individual (Nelson wouldn’t say who) last fall reinvigorated the organization.

He has a model in place to define what constitutes a “professional” athlete, and though he refused to go into detail, he said it would likely be a ranking system, similar to the one used by the PGA Tour. He’s also been in contact with other players’ associations in others sports, such as the NFLPA, NHLPA, MLBPA, IRPA (rugby) and FIFPro (soccer), mature unions that have offered advice and support to Nelson and the TFAA. In January, the TFAA hosted a teleconference in Atlanta on the subject of anti-doping, with over 20 athletes participating either in-person or dialing in from around the world.

Still, there’s a lot of work to do. Right now, there are around 400 TFAA members, but that includes retired athletes, agents and even fans (Nelson did not provide a specific number of athlete members, stating that right now TFAA does not differentiate between athlete and non-athlete members). And the vast majority of those members are from North America, South America and the Caribbean. Even True, who’s on board with the idea of an athlete union, admits he’s not sure if he’s currently a member of TFAA or not. To be taken seriously, the union needs to expand to all corners of the globe, but that’s a process that takes time.

“This is a long road for us,” Nelson said. “People look at this and they and say why aren’t taking care you looking at this issue, this issue, this issue? Those issues are important but we have really limited bandwidth.”

Will the Scarlet Letter Law or the Fair Play Fund become realities? Will TFAA develop to the point where it can enact meaningful change? Only time will tell. What Nelson does know: if athletes are unhappy with the situation, there’s only one way for them to fix it.

“If athletes don’t get involved, if you don’t get out and vote so to speak, you get exactly what you pay for…We’ve got to unify behind one consistent vision of what we want. If we do that, there is no group that will stand in our way, whether it’s the IAAF, whether it’s another federation, WADA, or any other group.

“I can remember having this conversation with a very influential person from a very influential company in this sport and he said to me, point blank, and it was reiterated by several other people from different perspectives: every well-organized athlete-led initiative or proposal, where the athletes were really passionate about it and the athletes proved that they weren’t going to back down, has always resulted in change.”  

Editor’s note: If you are interested in learning more about the TFAA, check out its website: http://trackandfieldathletesassociation.org. There you can become a member for $20 a year (as an athlete or non-athlete) or make a donation.

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