The way Alysia Montaño sees it, she should have one Olympic and two world championships medals, instead of none. The former UC Berkeley runner finished fourth in the 800 meters at the 2011 world championships, fifth in the 2012 London Olympics, and fourth again at the 2013 world championships. In each of those races, she finished behind athletes who now face bans after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.
“Those are three medals I’d have that I don’t have,” she says. “Those were opportunities to see my flag raised and stand on the podium, but I didn’t.”
Even if she later finds herself moved up in the standings, after the lengthy legal appeals process, she still lost out on lucrative sponsorship money and on the experience of crossing the line first, she contends. That experience is what she’s spent years working towards—and if she gets hurt now or something goes wrong, she may never have another chance. “What dopers do is take away the opportunity for the human spirit,” she says.
Given her history and the spate of recent doping news, it wasn’t a surprise when Montaño was asked about the topic during the recent U.S. Olympic team media summit in Los Angeles. What was surprising—at least to everyone else—was her answer.
Montaño is not happy that American sprinters Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, both of whom have served previous bans for doping violations, are back competing and are likely contenders in Rio. (Gatlin took second to Usain Bolt at last year’s world championships.) “Once a doper, always a doper,” she told the media summit. Gay and Gatlin, she argued, along with anyone who tests positive for a banned substance, should be kicked out of the sport for life—and they definitely shouldn’t be used in marketing materials or as examples for kids to look up to.
While her comments were not unprecedented, it was perhaps the most high-profile instance of an athlete speaking out about a growing sense of discontent, and especially noteworthy because it came at an officially sanctioned Olympic press event.
“A lot of athletes think it and a lot of athletes believe it,” says former UC Berkeley runner and 1,000 meter American record holder David Torrence about the concerns Montaño raised. “We’re fortunate” that she was willing to speak up.
Athletes who test positive for a banned substance now typically face a two- to four-year suspension from the sport, which is regulated at the international level by the International Association of Athletics Federations and the World Anti-Doping Agency. USA Track and Field is the governing body for the sport within the United States. But, says that organization’s spokesperson Jill Geer, “as a national governing body, USATF is bound by the Amateur Sports Act, a federal law that dictates that any athlete who is otherwise eligible to compete cannot be banned from competition, including the ability to compete for Team USA. Once individuals serve their suspensions, they are fully eligible to compete and receive benefits offered to all eligible athletes.”
In other words, USA Track and Field can’t ban Gatlin or Gay now, even if it wanted to.
Neither Gay nor Gatlin’s agents responded to requests for comments, but both athletes have spoken in the past about their drug use being isolated incidents, learning from their mistakes, and now being ready to make the most of their second chance. In fact, many in the sport argue that these two have served their time. And, if the number of people cheering for Gatlin as he went on a record-blazing spree through last season is any indication, most fans don’t seem concerned about his former record.
That’s exactly the problem to Montaño.
It’s not that she’s against second chances in life, but “you don’t get convicted of malpractice and get your license back as a doctor,” she says. You have to move on and do something else. There have also been a growing number of studies that suggest the effects of certain performance enhancing drugs last long beyond whenever an athlete stops taking them, possibly for years or decades more, as Torrence pointed out.
The doping problem “is still not fixed. Why don’t we have it figured out? Because people are afraid to speak.”
Plus, all the athletes who lost to dopers or who didn’t even get to the starting line because someone who was doping took that spot “don’t get a second chance at that race,” says Montaño. They don’t get to re-run the Olympic finals.
“Sport is supposed to be about bettering oneself,” she says, noting that athletics should be about deriving joy from the hard work required to achieve something difficult. Dopers have “destroyed our idea of what’s amazing….Everyone’s so disillusioned.”
Part of what inspired Montaño to be more vocal generally was the birth of her daughter, and wanting her to know what is right and to feel confident in her own dreams. When Montaño was 14 years old and had “just a glimmer of the Olympics” in her mind, the BALCO doping scandal shook the world of track and field. Now, 16 years later, her daughter is a toddler and the doping problem “is still not fixed,” she says. “Why don’t we have it figured out? Because people are afraid to speak.”
When she went to her first world championships, back in college, Montaño said she asked lots of questions and voiced lots of concerns, but was told by other teammates to be a little less vocal. You don’t want to scare off sponsors or cause problems, they warned her. What followed was years of toeing the line.
Torrence, her fellow runner from Cal, echoed the belief, which many athletes expressed on social media and in their own comments, that Montaño was brave to speak out at an official USA team event and will likely face repercussions for it. “They’re not going to want to give her a microphone again,” he says.
Geer insists that’s absolutely not the case, noting that all USATF athletes are entitled to express personal opinions and that Montaño was specifically invited to the media summit. “We were fully aware of the range of questions she would be asked, and even spoke collaboratively with her about it beforehand.”
Doping issues have been notably shaking the foundation of the running world lately. A report released in recent months from a commission led by Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, argued that the problems were rampant in certain countries, including Russia, and that cover-ups and corruption were deeply embedded in the governing bodies. The International Association of Athletics Federations voted to suspend Russia from competition. Then, in recent weeks, the addition of Meldonium to the banned substance list has resulted in over 60 new athletes testing positive, many of whom are track and field athletes. It has started to seem like every week comes with a new press conference, like, yes, that one from Maria Sharapova.
That’s partially what’s prompting more runners to speak out. For many of them, social media has also provided a platform they didn’t have before. When prominent athletes retweeted Montano’s comments or voiced their support online, she says it was encouraging.
And it’s not distracting from her primary focus: getting ready for Rio. Of all the media attention and comments, she says, “It’s actually been very therapeutic.”