Friday, October 5, 2007

In the Steroids Era, Can Any Sports Record be Trusted?

Barry Bonds' name has become synonymous with steroids because a mountain of evidence indicates that he used performance enhancing drugs to boost his productivity en route to breaking the most hallowed record in sports. Bonds has never tested positive, so some people cling to that thin reed to proclaim his innocence (never mind that users can cycle their dosages or use masking agents to easily foil the tests). Olympic star Marion Jones also has never tested positive and has vehemently denied using steroids--and many people defended her. Now it seems that those people were fools, because the Washington Post reports that Jones now admits that she used steroids and lied to cover this up. Jones will plead guilty in federal court to two felony counts for lying about the steroid use and what the Washington Post calls "an unrelated financial matter."

The Jones case is troubling on many levels. Her admitted steroids usage predated the five medals--including three golds--that she won in the 2000 Olympics; needless to say, all of those performances are now forever tarnished. She should be stripped of those medals and everyone who finished behind her should be moved up one spot, with the appropriate medals awarded as necessary. Jones still claims that she did not knowingly take steroids--the same stance that Bonds allegedly took when he testified to a federal grand jury--but she now admits that she eventually realized that she had in fact taken steroids and then lied about this to federal authorities. If Jones could take steroids, win medals, pass drug tests and all the while maintain a defiant public stance that she never used performance enhancing drugs then what should we believe about Bonds, Lance Armstrong and countless other elite athletes who have set records and/or won championships while under a cloud of suspicion? It is becoming very obvious that the drug tests only catch people who are stupid or reckless, so Bonds and Armstrong can trumpet their "clean" tests all they want; in the end, all that probably means is that Bonds and Armstrong have not been as stupid or reckless as some of their fellow competitors.

Nearly 20 years ago, Carl Lewis sounded the alarm about drug use in track and field but he was branded a whiner and a sore loser. Then Ben Johnson blew by him in the 1988 Olympics as if his legs were powered by jet fuel--and, in a way, they were. Johnson apparently fell into the stupid and/or reckless category, as he flunked a drug test, was stripped of his gold medal and his name became synonymous with cheating. It seems like our standards have gone down since then and our tolerance for wrongdoing has increased. Every day we hear about more athletes who have flunked drug tests or whose names have come up during federal investigations yet the overall response seems to be a collective shrug as opposed to communal outrage. Steroids and performance enhancing drugs are illegal if they are used without a doctor's prescription; they also can lead to very bad side effects, so even if you don't care what happens to the elite athletes who use them this is still important because kids and teenagers look up to these athletes and are in turn deciding to use PEDs. Perhaps only economists are able to convince themselves that PEDs don't in fact enhance performance but it is worth noting that PEDs most certainly do; that is why so many athletes take them. If athletes really believe that these substances should be legitimate, then they should petition to have the laws changed; then all competitors would be on a level playing field. Of course, a level playing field is the last thing that cheaters want. That is why they cheat in the first place and then lie afterwards to cover up their wrongdoing.

Marion Jones is every bit as despicable a figure as Ben Johnson was and she deserves to be stripped of her medals and ostracized by the sport just as he was. It seems like the dark secrets of the Steroids Era are rapidly being cast into the light of day and the more we find out the more it is natural to ask a very simple--and very disturbing--question about the many record-breaking sports feats that we have seen in the past 10-15 years: Was any of this authentic?

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