Athletic Performance


That is the title of a recent feature from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. It’s subject: the men’s 100 M final in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Namely, a near perfect sports’ moment that was ruined by the illegal drug use of one Ben Johnson.  It’s not the first time that 30 for 30 has covered anabolic steroid use in Track and Field. They did a feature on Marion Jones and her own steroid scandal in a previous season.

Track and Field, baseball, cycling and football have all had major scandals or issues with steroids or performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). I can’t even begin to count the number of athletes who have tested positive for some PED or another. Many others who have not tested positive have probably used PEDs, but have managed to escape a positive test result.

The first form of performance enhancing drugs came in the 1940’s as an anabolic steroid synthesized from male testosterone.  Anabolic steroids can be prescribed to treat diseases such as cancer and AIDS .  However, it is largely athletes and their use of steroids to improve performance that has caused them to be a topic of discussion.  More specifically, the ban by sports organizations prohibiting their athletes from using them.

Lance Armstrong is the latest athlete to be involved in a scandal surrounded by PEDs.  He is a survivor of cancer, winner of 7 Tour de France’s and perhaps the most famous athlete the sport of cycling has ever had.  After a years long battle with the U.S. Anti Doping Agency, Armstrong announced in August he would no longer battle the latest charges filed against him.  The USADA imposed sanctions and sought to strip Armstrong of his 7 Tour de France titles. In mid October, after a 200 paged report was released by the USADA, the International Cycling Union backed the USADA’s sanctions of Armstrong and officially stripped him of his titles.  Armstrong’s reputation has been forever tainted as a result. He has lost endorsement deals, including Nike, and has resigned as Chairmen of Livestrong,  his own found charity organization to fight cancer.

As with Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and others, the outcry from fans and the media about Armstrong has been loud and partly misplaced.  Here is a long list of athletes who have achieved great feats of athleticism, been granted hero status and earned the respect of millions.  All of that comes crashing down because they accomplished this while breaking a rule.  Cheating is wrong and immoral, and lying is in that same neighborhood.  Fans have a right to feel to cheated and lied to by Armstrong, however, their outcry should be less about the fact Armstrong broke a rule and more about the rule itself.

The NBA, NFL and MLB all have rules committees that review and change rules during their off seasons.  Plenty of new rules are enacted at the start of the new season, with some gaining lots of attention and all created to improve the onscreen product.  The time has come for sports as a whole to, at the very least,  re-examine its ban on PED’s.  Here’s a short list why:

  1. Health risks – the possible side effects of steroid use are well documented.  Former NFL player Lyle Alzado believed that 20 years of steroid and HGH use caused the brain cancer that eventually led to his death.  However, scientific studies have yet to confirm a link between steroids and brain cancer.  Alzado became a spokesperson warning against the dangers of steroid abuse.  Athletes are normal human beings just like the rest of us and capable of deciding what they want put into their bodies.  Let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t really care about the health and well-being of the athletes that we attempt to hero-worship.  How do I know this?  Simply look at the fallout of Armstong, Jones or Melky Cabrera.  Almost none of the response involves the health risks they took or the damage they potentially did to their bodies.  Instead, the narrative coming from their respective organizations is about how they broke one of their rules.  The outcry from fans has been about how they feel cheated or lied to and not about the inherent risk that comes with the use of PEDs.
  2. Unfair Advantage – there is a persistent myth which states that the use of anabolic steroids gives an athlete an unfair advantage over his/her competition.  This is utterly false.  While there is no denying the benefits in increased performance (more on this later) that PEDs provide, they’re only unfair if a select few have access to and decide to use them.  The sheer number of athletes that have tested positive for or been suspected of using PEDs tells you that they’re available for any athlete who wants to use them.  Armstrong’s 7 Tour de France titles have not been given to anyone else simply because the second place finisher in each of those races has also been linked to PEDs.  With so many of cycling’s competitors involved with steroids, how much of a competitive advantage did a single one actually gain over his opponents?  Hardly none, I’d say.
  3. Enhance performance – Practices, weight training, better medical treatments.  This is just a short list of items which have the same goal: to improve or maintain an athlete’s performance.  Gatorade is found on the sidelines of every team in every game that’s played.  It’s purpose, to replace electrolytes and carbohydrates better than water. Again, this is done to improve or maintain performance.  PEDs are different from any of these how exactly?

Slightly less than halfway into his 17th NBA season, Kobe Bryant is off to a blistering start. His Lakers team (15-18 and out of the playoffs) is not, but I digress.  The future Hall of Famer is once again among the league leaders in scoring and perhaps playing the most efficient basketball of his career.  Bryant has credited a new offensive system and the presence of new teammate Dwight Howard with his improved play.  At the age of 34 and with over 51,000 minutes under his belt, Bryant is defying conventional basketball wisdom with his high level of play.  Most athletes who have passed the prime of their careers start to see a decrease in their production.  Kobe’s numbers have gone up this season and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.  Both Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd are also performing solid in the twilight of their Hall of Fame careers with Duncan earning more than a token spot on the All-Star roster.

To date, the NBA has been void of a major scandal involving performance enhancing drugs.  No star player has tested positive for steroids or PEDs.  True Hoop’s Henry Abbott wrote an excellent series examining the NBA and PEDs.  In it he covers the myth that doping doesn’t benefit basketball players, the NBA being behind with its anti-doping policy and the list of banned substances.  In short, the NBA has been void of a major PED scandal partly because they’re behind the curve when it comes to testing.  If and when that scandal comes I imagine it will be similar to what MLB went through a few years.  Nor would it surprise me to see Kobe’s name included on whatever list of NBA players potentially accused of doping.  Of course, the NBA could avoid that scandal, and its ensuing fallout, by lifting the performance enhancing drug ban.

2 thoughts on “Athletic Performance

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