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What's behind the steroids scandals?

By Stuart Easterling | August 6, 2004 | Page 13

Imagine that your boss calls you into his office and accuses you of being a drug user. You haven't failed a drug test, but they claim to have circumstantial evidence that they won't reveal. They threaten to fire you and prevent you from working elsewhere. The media broadcasts the accusations and calls you a liar. You're "guilty until proven innocent."

This is the basic picture of the current hysteria around "performance-enhancing" drugs that's taken hold of the sports world. Performance-enhancing drugs refer to any substance banned because it's believed to give someone an unfair advantage in athletic competition. They range from stimulants to steroids, but different sports ban different drugs. Many of them can be purchased legally over-the-counter.

The most recent scandal broke when the San Francisco-based Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) was raided by police in 2003, and its owners indicted for illegally distributing steroids to athletes, among other charges. A number of sports figures--including baseball players and Olympic athletes--had obtained legal nutritional supplements from BALCO, which has led to the media treating them as guilty by association.

More recently the Republicans have gotten into the act. As the San Jose Mercury-News put it, the issue has been "embraced by White House officials, who see steroids as another avenue for the president to promote a discussion of values in an election year." So Bush denounced steroid use in his State of the Union speech.

He preached that steroids "send the wrong message: that there are shortcuts to accomplishment." Bush could easily have been talking about himself, given how he got rich from his father's connections. Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft called a two-hour nationally televised press conference to personally announce the BALCO indictments.

But the biggest concern for the government's head crackpots is the coming Athens Olympics. With the international reputation of the U.S. at an all-time low, any embarrassing revelations of drug use by a U.S. medal-winner would be a major public-relations problem.

Last year, the U.S. was even threatened with sanctions if they didn't clean up their act — including not being able to fly the U.S. flag at the Athens games, and possibly losing New York's bid for the 2012 Olympics. The reason for the threats--as the chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) rightly noted--is that "the United States internationally is considered to be the nation with the most cheaters."

For years the U.S. Olympic Committee completely condoned the use of performance-enhancing drugs. A 2003 report in the Orange County Register revealed that during the 1990s, over 100 failed drug tests by Olympic athletes were ruled "inadvertent use" by U.S. officials--including one by track superstar Carl Lewis. If these tests had been performed at the Olympics themselves they would have resulted in an automatic ban.

The USADA, formed in 2000, is now charged with investigating the U.S. Olympic team. With two-thirds of its funding coming directly from the Bush White House, one critic has accurately described it as a "Republican tool." It's become yet another wing of the administration's PR campaign.

After years of turning a blind eye, the goal of the USADA and Olympic officials is now to bully any suspected athlete off the U.S. team. They have changed the criteria for banning athletes from "beyond a reasonable doubt" to simply reaching "the comfortable satisfaction" that drugs were used. In their words, "the formal rules of evidence do not apply."

Meanwhile, since Ashcroft announced the BALCO indictments, circumstantial and hearsay evidence from the investigation has been repeatedly (and illegally) leaked to the press, apparently in order to keep the crusade going.

Their most prominent target has been track star Marion Jones. Jones has taken a total of 160 drug tests in recent years, and passed them all. She has passed a lie-detector test. The evidence against her from USADA is circumstantial and flimsy at best.

But their strategy has been to convict her in the media, and the media have gone along. Marion Jones will likely compete in Athens, largely because she has stood her ground and she has good lawyers.

Whether she has ever used "previously undetectable" steroids will probably never be proven. But the USADA has succeeded in tarnishing her reputation and career without any hard evidence.

In the end, Olympic athletes use performance-enhancing drugs because winning medals means big money in endorsements. Athletes in pro sports use them because they believe it will help them stand out from the pack, and perhaps hit the jackpot.

The degree to which such drugs (especially steroids) actually boost performance in various sports is up for debate. But some athletes feel they can't afford not to use them. Yet even without steroids, the grueling and backbreaking training required in order to keep up with the competition is nothing short of bizarre.

This is true in all kinds of sports: weightlifting, football, cycling, wrestling, track, and others. The media may glorify the ideals of dedication and hard work, but in the end it comes down to pounding yourself into the physical condition needed to compete at the level required.

Would it really be like this if there wasn't so much money involved? Would young athletes be tempted to use performance-enhancing drugs if they had other opportunities for a college education or a profession that provided financial security? In the end, the "scandal" around steroids in sports is still all about money and politics.

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