Saturday, June 27, 2009

Silken Laumann: Official spokeswoman for Benadryl

A couple posts ago, my regular two readers were somewhat surprised that members of the fourth estate would name Silken Laumann as a particularly bad interview. She's been a media darling for eons. What was it about her they didn't like? Well, while rooting through the (Old) Sports Guy archives, I came across a column I wrote a year earlier. Remember when dear Silken got in a bit of an ethical brouhaha at a rowing event? Her legions of fans rushed to her defense. I don't know about the rest of the media (who reads such drivel?) but I, being the clear thinker I am, looked at the situation more rationally. No doubt others did, as well, which may have soured her on us. Or vice versa.

I have to say, I have no opinion on Silken as a person at all. While we went to the same university at the same time, and she was in one of my classes, I didn't follow rowing. All I knew was that she had very lovely breasts. A sexist comment, to be sure, but I was a college-aged young man and she never wore a bra. I always appreciated her entrances and exits into our English class.

But as a journalist, I had to take a long hard look at the facts of the case. Here is that column from March 30 - April 6, 1995:

The Sports Guy

by Guy MacPherson

In sports, if a penalty or foul is committed, the offending player is penalized and the opposition is awarded compensation. Whether the foul is intentional or not is inconsequential. An advantage is gained and a price must be paid.

In hockey, an unintentional high sticking gets the same result as one done with purpose. A player who tries for a steal in basketball and accidentally nudges his or her rival off balance is just as guilty as one who fouls out of frustration. Their intentions may be honourable but you know where good intentions can lead.

Canada’s sweetheart, Silken Laumann who won the nation’s hearts with a bronze medal performance in Barcelona, found herself on that road to hell last week when she and her three teammates were stripped of the gold medals they won in quadruple sculls at the Pan-Am Games in Mar Del Plata, Argentina. Laumann was guilty of the egregious crime of taking a banned substance. Nothing like anabolic steroids that fellow Canadian athlete Ben Johnson was reviled for, but the seemingly harmless cold medicine Benadryl Decongestant Allergy.

Now we know how those Chinese swimmers did it. With all that Asian flu going around, they were doped up on cough and cold medication.

Maybe not. But the problem is that Benadryl contains an amphetamine-like drug called pseudoephedrine, which is often used for its stimulant effect by less-scrupulous jocks.

By all accounts, Laumann was an innocent victim. Suffering from congestion and facing a long plane ride to Argentina, Laumann consulted her doctor about taking Gravol to help her sleep. He suggested Benadryl, which would clear her ears for the flight.

She also checked with the Canadian team doctor while in Argentina. Doc gave her the go-ahead. After winning the single and the quad sculls, she reported to the doping control office that she took the cold remedy. She was up-front all the way.

“I believe I did everything in my power to make sure what I was taking was not a banned substance,” she was reported as saying. “I asked the qualified team physician. I checked at the mission... Again there were no questions about Benadryl. I ask myself, ‘What else could I have done?’”

Well, there’s always research, for starters. That might have taken five minutes.

She gets full marks for honesty but loses points for knowledge of the subject. All Canadian athletes are given a booklet which lists banned substances. Granted, you’d think doctors would be informed enough to be trustworthy. (That’s assuming sports team doctors know more than any G.P. I’ve ever visited.) I find it amazing that not one of the physicians she consulted asked which of the Benadryl products she was using. Only one of them contains Pseudoephedrine. But still, she had the information available herself. And as they say, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Laumann admits to some negligence on her part. “If I had looked at the ingredient label, that would have helped,” she understated. “But I’m not a chemist.”

No, she’s not. She’s an athlete. And athletes can’t be expected to read or make decisions on their own. The ingredients are clearly marked on the package. But if you can’t have clout and be pampered, you may as well go into journalism.

Laumann is getting support from all over, including her teammates, fellow athletes, and even royalty – the head of the IOC’s medical commission, the artist formerly known as Prince Alexandre de Merode.

And garbage sports competitors are rushing to her defense. Synchronized swimmer Carolyn Waldo said, “If two doctors told me it’s not a banned substance, I’d trust the doctors’ opinion.” I can’t imagine what kind of drug could ever aid a synchronized swimmer, except maybe one that makes them terminally happy and keeps their nostrils shut.

Was Laumann treated harshly, as she herself said? If she is suspended from rowing for even the shortest period, then yes, I’d say she is being treated harshly. I agree with Rowing Canada that she was the victim of a professional mistake. Who’s to blame is irrelevant. And Pan-Am officials ruled that the concentration of the drug was consistent with the amount usually found in cold remedies and that the situation was the result of an error.

But is she being treated harshly if she loses the gold medal and is let off with a warning? I don’t think so. Canadian doping officials say that pseudoephedrine is among the most innocuous of banned substances. Sure, next to anabolic steroids, it’s innocuous. But it didn’t become banned because it was hard to pronounce. As a stimulant that can improve performance, it has been used too frequently by athletes for non-decongestive purposes.

Laumann may have gained a slight, albeit unconscious, edge in her race. Most likely she didn’t. At least, not twelve seconds’ worth – the margin of victory the Canadians beat the Cubans by. But we can’t prove that. All we can prove is that her body contained a drug that is known to enhance one’s athletic accomplishments. The amount, and how it got there, is insignificant.

If an athlete were to show the smallest trace of steroids, it wouldn’t matter how compelling the story is, we would be quick to jump off the bandwagon. It wouldn’t be fair to the “clean” rowers from other countries she competed against if Laumann were allowed to keep her medal. If she got away with using Benadryl, then another athlete might figure she could snort Dristan nose spray. It might eventually reach the point where athletes were wantonly rubbing Vic’s Vapo-Rub on their chests before competing.

Silken Laumann’s bandwagon, thankfully, is still full. While technically guilty, she’s innocent of the much more heinous crime of callously pursuing victory at any cost. We know it. The games people know it. The ad men know it. Everybody knows it.

Don’t cry for Silken Laumann. She made a mistake and she’s paying for it. She’ll live to race another day and we’ll still see her on TV trying to sell us things we don’t want.

But I bet Benadryl won’t be one of them.


  1. I've only met Silken once. It was in Sidney, and she was with her daughter. She seemed very nice, but also quite confused. She was trying to find her car. It seems she couldn't remember where she had parked it. To her credit, she exhibited all sortsa grace under pressure. Never once did she get curt with her child or lose the smile off her face.

    But ain't no chemist you say? Ain't no GPS either.

  2. (Can't give an update on how her breasts are doing, though. Couldn't get past that blinding megawatt smile.)

  3. Get this. Andrea tells me the only other time she met Silken was when she was asking for directions in Superstore. It appears Silken was a rower for a reason, no sense of direction.

  4. Rowers are the only athletes who win if they sit down and go backwards faster than everyone else.

  5. I know you're old, Mr. Old Sports Guy, but pick up the pace on the postings!