Are shot-putters facing extinction? Like the dinosaurs, those behemoths of an earlier time, they seem to live in a world they have outgrown. They are viewed by the rest of the track and field community as larger-than-life symbols of the sport's No. 1 public-relations problem—drug use. If some comet were to come along and wipe out all the world's shot-putters, the reaction in many quarters would be: Good riddance.
This is an article from the March 15, 1993 issue
Mike Stulce knows that. Last summer Stulce, now a 23-year-old Texas A&M senior, became the first American to win an Olympic shot-put title since 1968, when another Aggie, Randy Matson, prevailed in Mexico City. Stulce was magnificent in Barcelona: Every one of his four fair puts was long enough to win the gold, and the best of them, a toss of 71'2½", beat silver medal winner Jim Doehring, who is also from the U.S., by 29¼ inches. That's the biggest winning margin in the Olympic shot put since 1900.
Stulce, however, did not enjoy his triumph. His remarkable performance was overshadowed by his past. All three medal winners, including bronze medalist Vyacheslav Lykho of the Unified Team, had previously served suspensions for drug use. When Stulce and Doehring, 31, who lives in Fallbrook, Calif., appeared before the Press, they were as downcast is any Olympic medalists lave ever been. They knew what was coming. "You could just read it off some of he faces," recalls Stulce.
Sure enough, when the questions turned to the puters' common history and Stulce declared that he had lever used performance-enhancing drugs, the response vas skepticism. "Please say why we should believe you," called out one member of he press. Stulce knew better than to try.
Suspicion has continued to dog him. Instead of being swamped with endorsement offers the way many Olympic gold medalists are, Stulce literally could not buy his way into a single European meet after the Games. Citing what Stulce calls "the cloud of negative propaganda" that hovers around the shot, promoters told him to stay home. Stulce offered to pay his own way, but the answer was still no. World-record holder Randy Barnes, whose two-year suspension for testing positive for methlytestosterone had officially ended on Aug. 7, got the same cold shoulder. Nobody wanted either of them.
Stulce wrote to four shoe companies, asking them not for the guaranteed contracts they routinely offer stars, but just for performance bonuses. Each one turned him down. "No one wants shot-putters," says Stulce, who actually had to buy the shoes he competed in during the Olympics.
Although throwers are hardly the only track and field athletes who have tested positive for drugs—for example, Ben Johnson—they do seem to benefit more conspicuously from steroid use than do other athletes. As a result, throwers are easy targets for antidrug sentiment. "They get the brunt of it," says Garry Hill, editor of Track & Field News. "They may not be using it more than other athletes, but their improvement is so obvious."
Hill predicts a gloomy future for the shot. "This is a critical year," he says. "Money is tight in Europe, and most meet promoters are running scared. The last thing they want is guys turning up positive at their meets. I'll be surprised if you even find the shot at a meet in Europe this summer."
Throwers are expendable to a promoter because they don't sell tickets the way milers or jumpers or sprinters do. When a thrower disappears to serve a suspension—even a world-record holder like Barnes or a gold medal winner like Stulce—no one is all that bothered. "The shot is not something people do in their leisure time, so it's easy to kick around," says Barnes. "It isn't a real glamorous event."
That hasn't always been true. The shot enjoyed the spotlight in the U.S. briefly during the early '70s, thanks to such putters as Al Feuerbach and Brian Oldfield, huge men whose expansive personalities matched the spirit of those rebellious days. But, says Gary England, president of American Big Guys, a club of throwers to which both Stulce and Barnes belong, "The times today don't lend themselves to wild-and-crazy shot-putters."
The times have, however, lent themselves to a renaissance in American shot-putting. For most of the last two decades, Europeans dominated the event. Barnes, 26, gets most of the credit for turning things around for the U.S. He got the silver medal at the 1988 Olympics, and he broke the world indoor record (74'4¼") in '89 and the world outdoor record (75'10¼") in '90. Even without Barnes, who was then serving his suspension, the U.S. went one-two in Barcelona, and another American, Gregg Tafralis of San Bruno, Calif., had the longest put (72'1½") of 1992.
Stulce is not yet threatening Barnes's records, but he has been throwing beyond 70 feet with remarkable consistency. Last September, at the World Cup in Havana—the only meet that would take him after the Olympics—Stulce threw 70'½" to defeat world champion Werner Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár of Switzerland by more than five feet. In three meets so far this indoor season, Stulce has had five throws exceeding 70 feet; Doehring is the only other thrower to reach that mark this year, and he has done so only once. Stulce will probably face Günth‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ár and Doehring again at the World Indoor Championships in Toronto on March 12.
By shot-putting standards, Stulce is not huge. He stands 6'3" and weighs 275 pounds, with a chest roughly the size of a bale of hay. He is an extremely nice young man, patient and polite. "I'm going to kill him if he calls me 'sir' one more time," says his agent, Wayne Souza.
However, when Stulce recounts his travails, he does so with the resigned air of a man who has told the tale enough times to know that he probably won't be believed. And there lies the saddest aspect of the drug mess: You want so much to believe him, yet the doubt is there, coloring the conversation.
Stulce started throwing the shot during his junior year at St. Pius High in Houston, after surgery on his left knee had ended a promising football career. As a senior he ranked ninth in the country among schoolboy throwers, with a best of 65'½", using the 12-pound high school shot. In his first two years at Texas A&M, he won two NCAA outdoor championships and one indoor title.
He most likely would have picked up his fourth title at the 1990 NCAA indoor meet in Indianapolis, but a routine drug test there revealed he had an abnormally high testosterone level. He was disqualified from the meet and banned from collegiate competition. Because TAC (since renamed USA Track & Field), the national governing body for the sport, ignores the results of NCAA testing, Stulce remained eligible to compete in open meets. But then, only two days after his positive NCAA test, TAC tested him, this time as part of its new out-of-competition testing program. Although TAC maintains that it randomly selected athletes to be tested, Stulce is suspicious of the timing of the TAC test. He tested positive again and was suspended by TAC for two years, earning the dubious honor of being the first person to be banned under TAC's random-testing program.
"For a year I really believed I would overturn my suspension," says Stulce, who claims that 12 procedural errors were committed in the processing of his TAC sample. He found a lawyer who agreed to help with his appeal. A year after the start of his suspension, Stulce's appeal was finally heard. Notification that it had been turned down arrived three days after the suspension had ended. It came by means of Federal Express.
Long before his appeal was denied, Stulce had given up the cause out of financial necessity, He was millionaire but a college student, grateful to have been given an athletic scholarship and devastated when A&M stripped him of it. Stulce also was banned from the athletic-department weight room and the varsity track. To pay his tuition, he got a job in the student-center weight room, where he still works 20 hours a week. He continued to train for the simple reason that he enjoyed it.
"I've always liked what De Coubertin said about the struggle being more important than the victory," Stulce says. "I like going out every day and working toward a goal. It seems worthwhile. Track and field is not a big moneymaking sport, but it has a certain dignity other sports don't."
Stulce and Barnes have trained together since 1988 but have become even closer through their bans. Says Stulce, "We sit around and have woe-is-me sessions."
For the most part, though, the two reacted differently to their suspensions. Barnes fought the two governing bodies that suspended him, TAC and the International Amateur Athletic Federation, tooth and nail, draining himself emotionally and emptying his bank account of the $200,000 it once contained. He has sued TAC and the IAAF for a total of $50 million in U.S. circuit court in Charleston, W.Va., and is awaiting a ruling.
As angry as Barnes gets when he discusses his case, he becomes virtually apoplectic in discussing Stulce's. "Mike was trashed," says Barnes. "He had no money, so he wasn't a threat. He got no consideration. I don't know how he got through it."
While Barnes seethes, Stulce remains stoic. "Randy is consumed by the feeling of being helpless," says Stulce. "He'll probably be a little disappointed in me for not having spoken up, but I've learned to put it behind me."
One wonders if he really can. The perception that the shot put and drugs are inextricably linked is widespread—Barnes says he has been fielding questions about steroids since his junior year in high school—and not without reason. A few years ago, a world-class shot-putter said privately that he believed everyone who had thrown 70 feet had used drugs. He did not claim to have firsthand knowledge about the 40 or so athletes his pronouncement included, but it was an educated guess.
If what this shot-putter says is true, drug-free competitions, at least initially, will do little to rekindle fan interest. Says Hill of Track & Field News, "Who wants to watch guys throw 60 feet when we saw them throw 70 feet a few years ago?"
So what can be done? One IAAF official has suggested changing the weight of the shot and starting from scratch with new records. The new specifications would make it impossible to compare new records with old ones, thus sparing the sport the embarrassment of coming face-to-face with its tainted past.
That's an intriguing idea, and one recently adopted with slight variations by two other governing bodies. In December the German track and field federation, in apparent recognition of its drug-riddled past, decided to erase its national records in all events—runs, jumps and throws. For the same reason, the International Weightlifting Federation recently changed its weight classes, wiping out all existing world records.
However, these plans make sense only if testing is infallible, and that isn't the case. There are not only agents that can mask the presence of performance-enhancing drugs, but also some substances, like human-growth hormone, that cannot be detected by current testing methods. Even blood testing, which is often held up as a panacea, cannot detect all banned substances. What's the sense of replacing one set of tainted marks with another?
As various schemes are debated, Stulce and Barnes battle doggedly into an uncertain future. "We can take 30 tests this year and nobody's going to believe us," says Barnes. "I plan to break my record again; when I do, I know exactly what's going to be said about me. That's pretty bleak."
Says Stulce, "I don't know what lies ahead for the shot."
This much seems certain: The shot will not disappear. Neither, it seems, will the suspicions.