Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lance Armstrong is the Latest--and Greatest--in a Long Line of Cycling Cheaters

In Lance Armstrong: Hero or Charlatan? I asked the question, "Is Lance Armstrong such a great and highly dedicated athlete that he can be clean and yet still beat younger athletes who are dirty--or is Lance Armstrong one of the greatest frauds in sports history, loudly proclaiming his innocence merely because he has found a way to beat the system?" The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has answered that question in the harshest conceivable manner, banning Armstrong for life and stripping him of all victories, titles and prize money he won since 1999, laying the groundwork for the revocation of his seven Tour de France titles and his 2000 Olympic bronze medal (those honors will not formally be taken away until the International Cycling Union and International Olympic Committee review the paperwork from USADA).

USADA took these actions against Armstrong based partially on two samples of his blood drawn in 2009 and 2010 that indicate he used banned substances but based mainly on the sworn testimony of at least 10 former teammates and/or associates who state that Armstrong not only used testosterone, the banned blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), corticosteroids and masking agents but that he also conspired to traffic in those banned substances with the purpose of distributing them to other cyclists.

Many sports have been tainted to some degree by performance-enhancing drug (PED) cheaters--including Major League Baseball, the National Football League and various Olympic events ranging from track and field to swimming to weightlifting--but cycling may be the dirtiest of them all: more than a third of the top 10 finishers in the Tour de France since 1998 have been linked to PED cheating and one third of the teams originally entered in the 1998 Tour de France either were expelled for doping or withdrew rather than face expulsion. The Tour de France is actually the Tour de Fake or the Tour de Pharmaceuticals. The high rate of heart attack deaths among young, seemingly healthy cyclists provides circumstantial--though compelling--evidence that cyclists are using artificial means to push their bodies beyond healthy, normal limits. Lance Armstrong is merely the latest--albeit by far the most accomplished--cyclist whose name is forever tainted by a cheating scandal.

You can read for yourself the accounts of three of the witnesses against Armstrong. Journalist David Walsh offers this summary of the Armstrong case and why Armstrong has given up without a fight: "It is not good for him because he has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and has been given a lifetime ban. He has lost every victory he has had since 1998, but the alternative was even worse--to have a tribunal in which the evidence from 10 former team-mates who all say they saw him doping would have been aired in graphic detail."

Armstrong had the opportunity to challenge this testimony and to attempt to refute any other evidence that USADA has gathered but instead Armstrong chose to defiantly smear USADA's investigative process while also declining to fight to prove his innocence. Armstrong has done--and continues to do--noble philanthropic work relating to cancer and he is justifiably praised for this work but as an athlete he is now every bit as disgraced as Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and every other member of the Rogues Gallery of PED Cheaters.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cabrera's Website is as Fake as His Artificially Enhanced Body

After Melky Cabrera tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and received a 50 game suspension from Major League Baseball, he was praised by many (including me) for at least making a forthright admission of guilt, in contrast with most PED cheaters; it turns out that Cabrera is in fact not only a cheater but also a liar as well: he only offered his heartfelt confession and apology after first coming up with an elaborate and yet ridiculous scheme to give himself plausible deniability. Cabrera and some of his associates constructed a fake website about a fake supplement to try to create an alibi after MLB's drug testers discovered Cabrera's elevated testosterone levels.

ESPN's Tim Keown declares that this sordid saga proves two things:

1) MLB's drug testing program works
2) PEDs work

The potential payoff for PED cheaters is staggering; Keown, echoing a point that I made in my original article about Cabrera's suspension, declares, "And make no mistake: Cabrera shook the dice, blew into his hands and let fly. Had his testosterone enhancement gone undetected, it's possible he could have been in line for a nine-figure free-agent heist in the offseason." That at least calls into question Keown's first assertion; perhaps he is right that the drug testing program works and that PEDs are so effective that some players are reckless enough--or stupid enough--to risk getting caught but one could also plausibly argue that guys like Cabrera, Manny Ramirez and Ryan Braun (who tested positive but was cleared on a procedural technicality) represent just the tip of a massive iceberg of PED cheating. Keown's second point is indisputable: PEDs work and that is why so many unscrupulous athletes take them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cabrera Suspension Yet Another Sign that MLB's "Steroid Era" is not Over

We know that performance-enhancing drug (PED) use was widespread in MLB during the so-called "Steroid Era" when the owners, the players and most members of the media largely ignored the fact that players were bulking up, setting records, winning championships and stealing millions of dollars in salary as a result of boosting their production with the help of illegal drugs. We are supposed to believe that the "Steroid Era" is over because now MLB conducts drug tests and has a three-tiered scale of punishment for offenders: 50 game suspension for strike one, 100 game suspension for strike two and a lifetime ban for strike three; all suspensions are served without pay. Despite the institution of the testing program and the aforementioned penalties, 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun failed a drug test (he was later cleared on a procedural technicality, with no scientific explanation offered for how his test could possibly been wrong) and Manny Ramirez--one of the top sluggers of the "Steroid Era"--retired in disgrace in 2011 after his second failed drug test (Ramirez later successfully lobbied to get his 100 game suspension reduced to 50 games and after serving that suspension earlier this season he is trying to make a comeback). Melky Cabrera, the current NL batting average leader (.346, .062 points above his career average), has just been suspended for 50 games; the only good thing that can be said about Cabrera is that he did not use the "dog ate my homework" type of excuse offered up by most cheaters who have been caught: he admitted that he intentionally took a banned substance.

What possible motivation could MLB players have to risk missing so many games and losing such a significant portion of their salaries? These are the two most likely reasons that MLB players could be caught using PEDs now:

1) The players believe that they can beat the system; perhaps many players are still using PEDs and getting away with it while only a few players are stupid enough and/or unlucky enough to get caught.
2) PEDs provide such a huge advantage that the potential rewards (money, stats, championships) outweigh the risks of getting caught.

Some economists insist that PEDs do not in fact enhance performance; I would not ask a medical doctor for economic advice, so I am not sure why anyone would ask an economist for advice about medical matters/sports performance but both the clinical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggest that PEDs do exactly what their name suggests: help an athlete to enhance his performance. Yes, that athlete still has to train hard but that is the point: all elite athletes train hard but the ones who take PEDs are able to train even harder and get more results from that training. PED usage can help a marginal prospect make it to the big leagues and it can help a talented player like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire put up superhuman numbers. Cabrera hit .255 for Atlanta in 2010, .305 for Kansas City in 2011 and this season he not only set a new career-high in batting average but he made the All-Star team for the first time and he won the All-Star Game MVP (clinching home field advantage for the National League in the 2012 World Series). Cabrera made $3,100,000 in 2010 but after his poor performance that season his pay was slashed to only $1,250,000 in 2011. His increased numbers in 2011 helped him land a $6,000,000 contract for 2012. He recently reportedly turned down a three year, $27 million contract extension because he expected to receive much more than that as a free agent after the 2012 season.

It is not difficult to figure out the calculations being made by Cabrera and other MLB players; increased performance is literally worth tens of millions of dollars. Only the players know how easy or difficult it is to evade detection for PED use but if Ramirez and Cabrera (and almost certainly Braun, technicality aside) were willing to risk getting caught it is not much of a stretch to assume that either (a) a lot of other players are still getting away with PED use or (b) those are the three stupidest guys in the sport.

If drug testing works--and if PEDs don't work anyway, as some economists suggest--then why are players still taking PEDs? It is premature to assume that the "Steroid Era" is over; the drugs of choice may have changed and the methods for evading detection may have improved but the positive drug tests that we know about probably just represent the tip of the iceberg.