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Ex-Olympian John Capel: ’A lot of track and field is dirty’

The former Hernando High and Gators star, who competed at the 2000 Sydney Games, pulls no punches when slamming the sport.
John Capel was among the United States' top sprinters during the early 2000s.
John Capel was among the United States' top sprinters during the early 2000s. [ ZUMAPRESS.com (2005) ]
Published Jul. 16
Updated Jul. 16

Former Olympic sprinter and ex-Hernando High star John Capel slammed the sport of track and field ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Capel — who defeated all-time track greats Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt during a career that included a spot in the 200-meter finals of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney — estimated that “90 to 95 percent” of top track athletes use illegal performance enhancers, up from “probably about 85 to 90 percent” when he was running.

“A lot of track and field is dirty,” said Capel, via phone.

One current Olympic track and field coach we talked to disagreed, putting the number of top track athletes who use performance enhancers at “5 percent.” The coach talked on condition of anonymity.

Capel, a 42-year-old Spring Hill resident, was a state champion sprinter and Parade All-America football player at Hernando High who later played two seasons for Steve Spurrier at Florida. He’s currently the track coach, co-offensive coordinator of the football team and junior varsity head coach at his alma mater.

Why does Capel, who most recently tried to qualify for the Olympics 13 years ago, think that high of a percentage of top track athletes are using banned substances?

“Most want fame and fortune,” he said. “Most do whatever for that.”

Capel had a setback in his career at age 22 when he flinched in the blocks in the 200 final at the 2000 Olympics. Favored to win, he moved in the starting blocks just before the gun went off, then hesitated, sure he would be called for a false start.

He wasn’t. He finished last.

Sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson won't be running the 100 meters in Tokyo after testing positive for a chemical found in marijuana.
Sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson won't be running the 100 meters in Tokyo after testing positive for a chemical found in marijuana. [ ASHLEY LANDIS | Associated Press ]

In 2003 Capel was the world champion in the 200. He was set to be on the 2004 Olympic team in the 400 relay before testing positive for marijuana. He tested positive for it again in 2006 and was banned from track for two years. His career ended in 2008 when he failed to qualify for the Beijing Games.

“They treat marijuana worse than they do steroids or any type of performance enhancer,” Capel said. “Marijuana didn’t enhance my running or help me recover. I think it is a dumb thing to have on the banned list.

“Anything that helps you focus should be on the banned list. Ritalin should be on the banned list. That’s more performance-enhancing than marijuana.

“What about No Xplode?” Capel said of the energy preworkout supplement. “Drinking 12 or 13 cups of coffee in every scoop that you put in your body. That’s more enhancing than marijuana.”

Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, according to the Washington Post. It’s still on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list. And it’s back in the news in track this year.

Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson won the women’s 100 at the Olympic trials last month and then tested positive for a chemical found in marijuana. Richardson, 21, admitted to smoking marijuana, received a one-month suspension and was left off the U.S. team for the Tokyo Games, which begin Friday.

“Sha’Carri just ended up not being a part of the ‘in’ crowd,” Capel said. “If she was part of the ‘in’ crowd, she would’ve been protected.

“Sha’Carri has a big heart and is a really nice lady. I think they look at her the way they looked at me (as someone USA Track and Field couldn’t control). I was stupid, too, when I was running.”

The Olympic coach agreed that the rule makers are offtrack with marijuana and said it should be taken off the banned list.

Most major sports test for performance enhancers. Former Cardinals relief pitcher Eric Fornataro, who runs Big Daddy Boat Rentals in Sarasota, said he was tested for performance enhancers every month during his career.

Former Hernando High and University of Florida standout John Capel competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Former Hernando High and University of Florida standout John Capel competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. [ Times (2000) ]

“I just had fear the entire time,” said Fornataro, 33, who spent one season in the majors, with the Cardinals in 2014. “We could get popped for caffeine.”

Butch Maier is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached on Twitter via @ButchMaier.