So much of a story is about perception. Present someone’s tale as one of woe, with the right keywords and attitude, and you can make a sympathetic figure. Present it differently, and the sympathetic victim becomes the villain. Today the running news has been buzzing with the tale of Christian Hesch, an elite runner who confessed to blood doping and is facing a ban from the USADA as a result. What really fascinates and appalls me though, is the wide disparity in how it is being presented, made worse by a major newspaper whose coverage blatantly manipulates the facts.
Here’s a quote from one article about Hesch’s tale:
Hesch, who has been a competitive runner since 2001, said he wanted to publicly admit to doping for the first time because he was facing punishment from antidoping officials. His justification for doping stemmed from this harsh reality: A few runners obtain lucrative shoe contracts and compete in a handful of high-profile, televised races; the rest are ordinary weekend runners. On Saturday mornings they lace up their running shoes and slip on dry-fit T-shirts like anyone else.
Hesch exists somewhere in the middle. He supports himself running full time without a sponsorship by cherry-picking road races across the country, favoring the ones with the largest purses and the least competitive fields.
This job does not come with workers’ compensation. In May 2010, Hesch was cross-training on his bicycle along Highway 1 in California between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay when he was hit by a car.
“It was one of those instances I should have been dead,” Hesch said.
He picked himself off the road and received only six stitches to his left elbow, a few deep bruises, minor road rash and a dislocated shoulder. He was able to walk away from the accident but was not able to train adequately for nearly five months.
For the fall racing season, he decided he deserved some extra help to get back on track.
And here’s another:
Hesch, 33, has run 3:58.68 for the mile on the track. He races frequently over a range of distances, from road miles to half marathons. Race Results Weekly has record of Hesch racing 27 times in 2011. Many of his races are at events with first-place prizes between $500 and $1500—enough to attract decent but not world-class talent. Such races don’t have the budget to conduct post-race drug testing.
Athletes at Hesch’s level also aren’t subject to out-of-competition testing. Such testing means the athletes can be tested at any time – not only at races. Although out-of-competition testing isn’t foolproof, it likely gives athletes greater incentive not to dope, knowing they’re subject to random testing. It’s possible that there is more doping at Hesch’s level than at the elite level.
When scheduling allows, Hesch, a resident of Hollywood, California, races more than once a week. For example, on August 17 he ran 4:00.1 to place fourth and win $800 at the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile in Pittsburgh. Two days later, he ran 1:07:05 to win the Rock ’n’ Roll Providence Half Marathon, good for $1,000. According to figures provided to Runner’s World Newswire by Race Results Weekly, Hesch won at least $5,300 in the first nine months of 2012. He has also made money pacing road and track races. Hesch told the Times he had made nearly $40,000 in the two years he claimed to have used EPO.
Notice anything? The top quote is from an article designed to make Hesch sympathetic. He only doped because he got hurt-how else could he support himself? The second focuses more on the facts. He races a great deal. He’s making a decent salary for himself racing. He does it by circumventing the rules because the rules aren’t designed to easily catch him. He can fly under the radar, so he does, even though it’s clearly wrong.
What amazes me is that the feel-bad-for-the-doper article came from the New York Times. There is little mention of how incredibly unethical doping is, even at the quasi-elite level. Cheating via blood doping is like taking an open book test, while everyone else takes the same test closed-book, and the test is graded on a curve. Honest athletes lose out on prize money because a dirty athlete took advantage of the system. But that’s glossed over completely for a fluffy piece designed to clear Hesch’s name. Worst of all, the article has clear contradictions; Hesch both claims to never have raced with EPO, but then he describes what it’s like to race with EPO … hmm …
As if that’s not unpleasant enough, what’s far worse is the information appearing behind the scenes. The second quote is from Runner’s World Newswire, and their sources contradict much of Hesch’s version of being caught, as well as Hesch’s claim that he “never raced on EPO.” Simple math indicates that he did-if he raced 27 times in 2011, and supposedly doped up 54 times in two years, there’s almost no way he didn’t race at least some of the time with EPO in his system. In addition, Hesch’s running team had to force him to confess to the USADA, and only after he repeatedly denied it despite evidence of EPO vials. Basically, the actual story is more complex, and Hesch isn’t just an athlete who got caught up in a way to recover faster. He’s a guy who cheated, a guy who lied to his teammates and race directors and participants.
I came home tonight thinking this was a bizarre enough story all by itself. Then I saw Competitor.com‘s take on the situation. According to Competitor’s coverage, the author of the piece that ran in the New York Times worked very closely with Hesch on the story. They tried shopping it around, and Competitor was interested, but then the author changed course and chose the NYT instead. Competitor had an apology from Hesch they wanted to run, but Hesch kept asking them to hold off until the Times reported. The entire story feels very manipulated, and it’s disturbing that of the three publications I’ve seen cover this story, the New York Times has done the sloppiest job. It reflects incredibly poorly on the NYT that there is no critical look at this story, and there was quite blatantly no cursory fact-checking done. Competitor and Runner’s World both pointed out the basic logical fallacies in the story, but the New York Times, a newspaper that says it runs “All the news that’s fit to print”, apparently didn’t check on whether their story was, in fact, news, or fit to print.
It’s amazing how stories can be manipulated so easily by perspective, and yet, it’s equally amazing that in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and fast-moving blog posts, inaccuracies and partial truths can be exposed swiftly and decisively! It certainly is an argument for seeking out multiple sources, especially when one source seems exceptionally biased in one direction!