If 40 is the new 30, then American sprinter Tyson Gay has a long decade ahead of him. Because at 30, he’s suddenly looking quite old, especially compared to the emergent track stars Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake of Jamaica, who at 26 and 23 make Gay look like at parent at a Taylor Swift show. Gay has certainly aged years in the past several days, when it was revealed that he tested positive for a banned performance enhancing substance. That has forced him to withdraw from next month’s world championships in Moscow, where he would have but faint hopes of topping a field that has since passed him by.
Gay has been a career case study of wrong place, wrong time. After winning the world championship in the 100 and 200 in 2007, he’s been overshadowed by injuries and Usain Bolt. So even having run a 9.69 100, a time that would have shattered previous world records, he did that while Bolt was essentially reconceptualizing the idea of human foot speed. He was always either one step too slow or one part too injured, either of which made him just “the other guy” in a sprinting era of one. So Tyson Gay would largely go down as the second best sprinter in a sport that privileges first. Think of him as the Clyde Drexler of track, an amazing basketball player who just happen to play the same position at the same time as Michael Jordan.
But even that precarious legacy is at risk, as we may now remember Tyson Gay as the guy who cheated to stay relevant. We don’t know the substance yet, but it appears linked to his work with someone known as an “anti-aging specialist,” which in the athletic world seems wholly unrelated to Botox and hair dye. It seems that’s code speak for things like Testosterone and HGH, performance enhancers that make one faster and stronger than even in their youngest moments. Gay wasn’t so much fighting age, but rather chasing a youth that never was, at least not it his body.
For his part, Gay has been somewhat forthright in his admission. Unlike others who’ve said they’ve been sabotaged, or the test was wrong, or something that sounds like a five year old’s explanation for why a glass is broken, Gay simply said that someone let him down. We’ll assume that someone is the aforementioned specialist, but that’s just a guess. It speaks to the idea that cheating operates on a continuum of consciousness, with hardly a soul offering a full mea culpa.
The same largely goes for Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, who not only tested positive for banned substances, but are now under criminal investigation for violating Italy’s drug laws. They have been less contrite towards their charges, inferring it was a new trainer that sabotaged their supposedly clean supplements. They’ll fight the charges, and probably lose, in an ugly chapter in the voluminous book of track and drugs, an appropriate interlude to the upcoming World Championships.
There’s hardly anything new to add here. Another positive test, another level of self-doubt when watching anything beyond little league. Another clink in the armor or hero worship and authenticity. Only now, we have the unique joy of categorizing these transgressions. For Tyson Gay, he never fully admitted to cheating, but of picking the wrong friends. Powell and Simpson admitted to naivety. And as fans, we’re put in that awkward position of deciding their level of complicity, like it’s a court case or something. Maybe that’s the modern era of sport, where cheating isn’t a yes or no construct, but rather a likert scale operative. Where now we have to decide just how much deviance we’ll allow. It makes you long for the good old days, where Marion Jones admitted it – not with condition, but just admitted it. Heck, even Lance said he’s guilty. It took ten years, but he said it. Perhaps Tyson Gay would be wise to learn that one lesson from Lance, if nothing else.
It seems just another burden placed on the post-modern sports fan. Now you have to be a moralist as well. It’s the kind of thing that can make you feel old, just trying to watch. That’s a feeling Tyson Gay would be very familiar with.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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