Steroids: Take one for the team
The media and the public have savaged American athletes for using steroids. The case of track and field icon Marion Jones is the most recent. Last week, she tearfully returned her three gold and two bronze medals to the U.S. Olympic Committee after admitting that she used steroids to enhance her performance.
Much of the criticism of Jones and others caught using steroids is unfair. There is a disconnect between what the sports-viewing public knows and expects and what is actually going on. Fans have created such high expectations for athletes that success seems to require steroid use for any sport requiring speed, power or a combination of the two. The genie is out of the bottle -- for good.
This was not always the case. When I was competing, some athletes used performance-enhancing drugs, but most didn’t. I never did and still established American and world records in the javelin throw. Yet my world record was surpassed by an East German who participated in a program famous for pharmacological enhancements.
It is extremely difficult for an athlete to resist doing whatever it takes to win. Our culture has elevated elite athletes to a status that is good for neither them nor us. It is unhealthy and unreal.
Elite athletes are normal in every way except for the fact that they are born with a singular skill with which they become obsessed, chasing its allure until age and injury stop them. Their natural obsession is exacerbated by $20-million signing bonuses, gold-medal tallies and fan and media insistence that elite athletes are special in every other way. Athletes are not gods. We must take them off the pedestal.
Fans, the media and sports governing bodies believe that we can rid sports of steroid use. Athletes will always be a step ahead of the testing labs in concealing substances because of the multibillion-dollar industries that have been built on their sweat and their obsession. They will seek out the next great “thing” -- a vitamin, a nutritional supplement, a training technique, a piece of training equipment, a new shoe, a drug. Athletes have used performance enhancements and supplements for centuries. We cannot change the nature of the beast.
Do we really think it’s in the best interests of the National Football League, Major League Baseball or USA Track and Field to punish athletes -- their cash cows -- who test positive for steroids?
But follow the logic of those who would cleanse sports of drugs. In most sports, it is my belief that performance-enhancing drug use is the rule, not the exception. What would be the effects of reversing this trend? For instance, take synthetic testosterone and its derivatives out of baseball and football. What would happen?
There would be far fewer home runs; smaller, slower, less muscular athletes and no new records for the next few decades until human development and equipment technology compensated for the absence of these drugs. There also would be fewer fans, reduced ticket sales, less ad revenue, less lucrative TV contracts and smaller stadiums built. The beneficiaries of performance-enhancing drug use exist at every level of the sports industry.
On the other hand, what if we decriminalized and destigmatized performance-enhancing drugs -- indeed, called them training supplements? Training supplements such as protein powder, creatine, good nutrition and Gatorade. By accepting these currently banned substances as mainstream, doctors, parents, athletes and coaches could acquire a greater knowledge and understanding of them. Use could be made much safer, clinical trials could be performed and dangerous overuse curbed.
The technology exists to test for levels of most of the substances on the “banned drugs” lists. What if we declared that certain levels of them in the body were acceptable, while excessive amounts would result in penalties? Athletes could satisfy their drive to be faster and stronger. Drugs could move from the black market to the legitimate sports-medicine community. Athletes could stop experimenting on themselves. It would be safer to take the substances, and with medical monitoring, there would be fewer negative side effects. And we could stop vilifying athletes and feel some relief because we would no longer have to keep pushing against this inevitable evolution of what sports has become. Tracks gets faster, nutrition gets more specific and training techniques improve.
But what do we say to our kids who ask, “Is this what I have to do to excel?” Well, let’s start with a resounding “yes!”
If that answer bothers you, consider if that same child asks, “Will I have to get injured to be a great football player?” The fact that injury and playing football go hand in hand hasn’t stopped too many parents from encouraging their kids to play the game.
Kids probably know far more about anabolic steroids than their parents. Is this the way it should be? In the same way that we have learned about injury prevention and safety equipment, we need performance drugs exposed to the hot light of public scrutiny. We need to legitimize their use. With more information and a more realistic view of our elite athletes, parents and kids can make more informed choices about their extracurricular activities.
It sickened me to listen to Jones have to apologize to everyone she loved for lying to them and letting them down. She was arguably the greatest female sprinter in our history, and thanks at least in part to our own hypocrisy, her reputation has been destroyed. Perhaps a more realistic view of the role of performance enhancements will prevent another Jones ordeal.