commentary (2006-32)

The rage for ’roids and other artificial performance enhancers

Physical Fraud

by Barry Henderson

It used to be that chemical doping to improve athletic performance was a Soviet sort of thing, with Russians and East Germans setting out to prove that their athletes were better than anyone else’s because their system was better.

Then the phenomenon began to bleed over into places like the West Indies and Canada. Canada, for goodness sake! And the United States soon followed. Football, baseball, track and field, and other sports have produced stories of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs. In effect, it’s a national disgrace.

Let’s hope and pray that the rest isn’t history, that our little world doesn’t ultimately become the site of acceptance of chemical research toward development of super athletes.

As it is, the doping scandals that are attaining the greatest prominence worldwide are U.S. products arising in the here and now. They are scandalously ugly, as they should be if the use of chemical performance enhancers proves true . Sprinter and University of Tennessee product Justin Gatlin’s matching of the world record for the 100-meter dash this spring is being challenged over a test that purports to show Gatlin’s testosterone level was unnaturally high.

The allegation is similar to that made against Floyd Landis, whose unreal bicycle racing performance gained him the 2006 Tour de France title. That feat is now under a shadow, even more than the oft-challenged achievements of Landis’ predecessor, Lance Armstrong, who has never tested positive for doping, despite the many accusations that have been thrown against him.

Both Gatlin and Landis have denied knowingly using artificial performance stimulants, as has the beleaguered Armstrong. So has baseball’s record-shattering slugger Barry Bonds, along with Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. Mark McGwire, who held the single season home run record before Bonds, has effectively taken the 5th refusing to discuss steroid abuse other than to say it has occurred in recent baseball history, as alleged by Jose Canseco and other ballplayers.

There have been few admissions, such as Canseco has made, of artificial performance enhancement, with lots of suggestions by athletes that the tests they’ve taken produced either false positives or that they were unwittingly administered the banned drugs in the course of regimens involving nutritional supplements or other approved substances.

There have been some public acknowledgements of doping, including that by the late Lyle Alzado, the Oakland Raiders star who admitted steroid use before his death, believed caused by complications resulting from those drugs’ side effects.

Yet athletes or aspiring athletes continue with that abuse, it is understood, on the theory that they would trade a few years from their lives to achieve stardom. It should be emphasized to them and to everyone that such ill-obtained stardom is absolutely phony.

There should be no individual records or team victories permitted to stand in instances where record-setting or participating athletes’ performances were proven to have been affected by banned drugs.

Even if misguided members of upcoming generations decide that performance enhancers are a “natural” outcome of human research toward improvement and that bionically obtained prowess is legitimate in sports, the records thus set should not be compared with those established in times when there were no such drugs available to athletes.

Proof of willful abuse of steroids or other banned drugs or doping processes may still be difficult to obtain, unless there are confessions or weighty testimony indicating that such abuse occurred, but continuing research in the field should eventually provide testing that is virtually infallible.

In the meantime, marks established or titles won and upheld by the sanctioning bodies of their respective sports will be honored under the premise that there is reasonable doubt that violations were involved.

That’s the way we do things here in America, with a justice system that presumes innocence.

It may be difficult to swallow that presumption when one looks at Bonds’ physique in his early years of professional baseball, before he became the preeminent homerun hitter of our day and age, and then compares that with the muscular specimen he turned out to be in a few short years. His records will stand unless or until baseball’s hierarchy deems them wrongly attained.

The same is true of Gatlin’s Olympic gold medal and his record-tying dash, and of Landis’ remarkable comeback to win the Tour. There is a cloud over such records and victories now, and it is a crying shame that the focus of doping investigations has landed squarely in the laps of American athletes.

Anything that science and aggressive enforcement of rules can do to put these scandalous episodes behind us will be more than welcome.