- Scott F. Parker
Life Is Luck: A Defense of Galen Rupp
It is reasonable to expect, even to hope, that in the near future Galen Rupp will be made to forfeit his medals, his records, and what remains of his reputation. The allegations against him are credible; the evidence against him, compelling.
If and when that day comes, what should the reaction be? To think about that, let’s imagine ourselves into that future in which Rupp’s name has been striked from the record books like Ben Johnson, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, and so many others before him. The first honest thing we will have to say is that he deserved what he got. He had it coming. There’s no place in sport for cheaters. Every child knows that.
Except, if children do learn not to cheat, how?
Nothing I am on my way to arguing is meant to exculpate Rupp from the consequences of his actions. But the question I want to raise is whether we should blame him for those actions.
Back in 1990s Portland, I was a boy who liked sports. Basketball was my favorite then, but I played them all. There were hundreds of boys like me, thousands. One of them was a few years younger than me and lived a few miles from my house. He and I would play soccer on the same rainy fields. As teenagers, we would run the same races. We had a lot in common—this other boy, me, all of us.
But while many of us share similar sporting backgrounds, few among us will truly excel in sports. The other boy in this parable—Rupp, of course—was one who would. It might have been in soccer, a sport at which he was already considered one of the best in Oregon. “But then,” as he would later put it in an interview, “lucky for me, I crossed paths with Alberto.”
Luck is right. Life is luck. Rupp, already genetically gifted, happened to enroll at the one high school where Alberto Salazar was coaching. Salazar, on the lookout for talented young runners he could cultivate to world success, saw in this high school freshman what must have looked like destiny.
But imagine how easily Rupp’s life could have gone differently. Say he’d gone to his district public school instead of Central Catholic. Maybe he would have been the best runner on his soccer team but never entered a race. Say Central Catholic just happened to be coached by anyone but Salazar. Say Salazar hadn’t been notified that there was a kid on the soccer team who could run. If things were different, the saying goes, they wouldn’t be the same.
We might be tempted here to say that these counterfactuals get us nowhere. Who cares what didn’t happen? All that matters is what did. I’m tempted in this direction. In a way, I think it’s right. But what I notice is that whatever did happen happened to Rupp. He wasn’t the cause of his talent, Salazar’s presence, or Salazar’s interest in him. He was a kid who happened to be fast.
What is agency? Galen Rupp was a child when Alberto Salazar entered his life. He was a child when Salazar began grooming him for success. He was a child when Salazar became a father figure to him. He was a child when he began to see himself through Salazar’s eyes. We would not hold the fourteen-year-old Rupp responsible for Salazar’s influence. What about the eighteen-year-old on whose behalf the University of Oregon track coach was replaced? What about the twenty-six-year-old Olympian who had been Salazar’s preferred athlete for over a decade? In the context of his relationship with Salazar, when, exactly, is agency meant to have coalesced for Rupp?
Put yourself in Rupp’s spikes: Of all the boys playing soccer in Portland, Alberto Salazar—the Alberto Salazar— singles you out for distinction, tells you there is promise in your legs, tells you he can make you an Olympian. Can you imagine how natural it would have been, as a child, to fall under the spell of someone so charismatic, so confident, so accomplished? And then everything he promises you comes true: NCAA champion, Olympic medalist, the face of American distance running. Every time he says “Trust me,” you trust him. And look where it gets you. Look where you are. You wouldn’t apply the cream he told you to apply? You wouldn’t take the prednisone he told you to take?
It’s easy to be sanctimonious from the safety of mediocrity. It is only in imagination that we can walk, never mind run, a mile in Rupp’s shoes. But when we do imagine ourselves in his place, can we really be so sure we would conduct ourselves differently?
Kara and Adam Goucher, former teammates of Rupp’s and two of the key whistleblowers against Nike Oregon Project’s rampant flouting of the rules under Salazar’s direction, are among the moral heroes of this story. Galen Rupp is not. But the standard for excellence should be as high in morality as it is in athletics. Not everyone achieves it. But whereas in the athletic sphere we readily neglect our also-rans, in the moral sphere we can choose to embrace our mediocrities. Rupp is no hero, but he’s no villain, either. If most of us have something in common with him, it is this: our moral mediocrity. The reaction Rupp’s example should elicit from us is not condemnation but compassion.
Life is luck. But the thing about luck is it’s often ambiguous. What first looks like the right genes falling into the right environment can, upon consideration, appear something much more tragic: bad luck dressed as success, fame, riches and the sinister grin of the Nike swoosh.