Recently I wrote a series of posts tackling some of the primary questions most people ask about drugs and sports. I refrained from saying what I think should be done about the situation. It wasn’t an oversight—it was an admission that I have absolutely no idea what the best solution might be.
One school of thought says that we should legalize everything for competition. If you want to use HGH or EPO, go right ahead. If you want to roll the dice and risk your long-term health, we won’t tell you otherwise.
Surprisingly, there is some support for this idea among some high-level athletes. However misguided it may be, many top athletes would risk personal harm to gain a competitive advantage—to a disturbing degree. Several years ago, Sports Illustrated did a survey of U.S. Olympic athletes, and asked them this: If you knew that taking a drug would ensure that you win a gold medal, but it was also guaranteed to kill you within five years, would you do it?
A shockingly high number—more than 50 percent—said yes. Death or Glory. Or in this case, both.
So clearly it’s not much of a moral dilemma for these athletes to use drugs, as long as the reward is large enough (a gold medal) and certain enough (guaranteed). In all likelihood, these same athletes would also turn to performance enhancing drugs if they suspected that any of their competitors were doing so.
You can see how this would quickly spiral into a situation where everybody’s juicing, because nobody would want to be stuck with the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight.
It’s not too difficult to envision a future competition where all the athletes are on some drug or another. One sport—bodybuilding—has gone down this road, to the point where it holds two separate competitions: there’s a “Mr. Universe” for drug users, and a “Natural Mr. Universe” for anyone else.
In fact, many people will tell you this “everybody’s juiced” situation is exactly what we have in track/running/cycling today. The only difference with bodybuilding is that they don’t ask us to pretend otherwise.
Better Living Through Chemistry
What if our sport formally adopted such a policy? Instead of merely having the best athletic ability, competitors would also strive to have the most potent pharmacological cocktail on board before their peak races. They would be dependent on chemists and lab geeks to achieve their success. Imagine every sprinter’s posse with one skinny, bespectacled guy in a short-sleeve plaid shirt with a pocket protector roaming around trying to look cool with the rest of the group.
Such a situation could be hilariously ironic. Think about it—who got teased and beat up more in high school than the kids in chemistry club? And weren’t the jocks usually the ones doing most of the bullying?
The chemists would actually have the upper hand in these partnerships. They couldn’t be fired—because they could then go and tell everyone else what particular designer drugs the sprinter was on. And the sprinter knows he won’t succeed without the help of a good chemist.
The chemistry guys would revel in this: they could do all kinds of trash talking with the sprinters. (“Dude, you’re looking heavy—what’s your atomic weight?”; “I’ll crush you faster than I did Sister Diane’s 11th grade lab final!”) Between events at track meets, they can congregate on the infield to make fun of their athletes, draw formulas in the dirt and trade periodic table jokes. They might even encounter some kind of chemistry groupies wanting to make “covalent bonds” with them after the meets.
Over time, the chemists would get the same rock star treatment the athletes get. Some of the better ones would sign “exclusive rights” contracts with companies like Nike and become millionaires. Scores of little kids will dream of a career in chemistry, and of growing up to compete at the “Chemical Games,” where the torch is an enormous Bunsen burner. The best chemistry students coming out of grad school could be drafted by professional teams and awarded lucrative signing bonuses. If you’re a career chemist, I don’t really see the downside to all of this.
Realistically, we know this isn’t going to happen, and I suppose that’s probably for the good. Sports have an inherently noble premise—that athletes are testing the limits of their bodies through nothing more than hard work and determination. And despite my jaded outlook, it’s a premise I’m completely in favor of defending.
Yes, the tests are light years behind the cheaters, but that doesn’t mean we should stop the effort. It’s just going to take a very long time before the priority (and money) given to testing is equal to the money that changes hands among the top athletes and corporations in every sport.
Until then, our sports will continue to have an anemic system of testing (one time per year for a baseball player? Oh please.), and they’ll continue to profess that they’re doing everything in their power to rid sports of doping. All of the top-level athletes will emphatically assert that they are completely clean, and fans will believe what they want to believe about each athlete based on his/her carefully crafted image.
None of us will ever know for sure, because the way we look at sports has been fundamentally, irrevocably changed.
And that’s the biggest tragedy of this whole saga.