Friday, August 24, 2012

Performance Enhancing Drugs and Athletes

by Bill Holmes

In the past few weeks there have been several headlines about performance enhancing drugs (PED) and athletes. A couple of Major League players have been suspended in baseball bringing the number this year to five. Also in baseball, Roger Clemens talks about a comeback in an independent minor league game and made rumblings about returning to the majors. The biggest story was that Lance Armstrong decided not to go to arbitration with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) over his alleged drug use.

Of course PEDs and athletes have been a topic for many years. As far as I remember the modern controversies started during the Cold War years when the East German athletes, particularly women, began to dominate some Olympic events and look a little masculine. There had been suspicions before that about body builders and athletes in strength events such as weight lifting and shot put. Nobody really cared much about body builders competition since it was a marginal “sport” and looked upon more like a male beauty pageant. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a very few others made a name and career from body building but even today it is a fringe sport. We were a little more concerned with the Olympic sports. All of a sudden a small poor Iron Curtain country like East Germany was beating the USA and winning gold medals. The USSR, mostly current Russia, began winning Olympic medals at a rate similar to the USA. Problem was there were either no or very limited tests for these drugs and there was no formal testing of athletes. The drugs were primitive too and many of those early users, many unaware or forced to use, are dead or have serious health problems.

Like all technology and science, drugs, legal and illegal, improved over time. They became more targeted and effective and less lethal. Testing also improved although never at the same pace as the drugs. The first testing I remember was the Olympics. They didn't catch many but it did start the cycle that is still going on. Drug developed, used by athletes, performance improved, test developed, athletes caught, new drug developed, … In addition to the actual performance enhancing drugs, the cheaters have discovered masking agents that hide the PED from the tests. Now we have to test for those too. It is a constant race between drug development and drug detection.

My prediction is this cycle will continue forever. The lure of a magic pill or shot or cream or supplement will always have allure for a win at all cost athlete. The same for the doctors and chemists who develop the drugs. If the brass ring of fame doesn't get them, the vast amounts of money will. Elite athletes can now make $20 million a year in salary and many times that in endorsements. Average athletes make $1 million or more a year. The minimum salary in the NBA and MLB is almost $500K. That's an awful lot of temptation to cheat.

Now on to the recent PED/ athlete stories. The four or five MLB players caught this year have admitted they used a banned substance although some say it was an accident. Maybe, but that makes them either liars or stupid. Alberto Contador, a multiple Tour de France winner, finally accepted a two year ban after months of negotiations although the two year ban wound up being about eight months with retroactive credit. He accidentally ate a tainted and imported steak. Cycling has been one of the most blemished and regulated sports. Now we have the Lance Armstrong case.

I have very mixed emotions about the situation. I'm totally against the use of PEDs to gain a competitive advantage but I'm also totally against Gestapo methods to catch the cheats. I sometimes have a problem with what is defined as a PED. Most pain killers are OK but an asthma medication may not be. Even insulin or psychiatric drugs can be questioned. They all enhance performance or at least allow the athlete to perform. This whole definition of PEDs is murky and gray.

In the last few years most major professional sports leagues and sanctioning bodies have instituted drug testing. Then the governments around the world got involved. There are also quasi-government agencies. We now have the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), USADA, the various leagues and associations and almost every government in the world regulating, testing and prosecuting drug use in sports. Here is where I get concerned. There are way too many entities checking this. Whenever you get multiple agencies or organizations trying to do the same thing you get conflict and competition. They all want to be the first or the best at catching the bad guys. Competition should be on the playing field, not with the anti-doping agencies.

The International Cycling Union (UCI), WADA, USADA and US Justice Dept., plus others had a hand in the recent prosecution of Lance Armstrong. Some of these organizations and agencies get to be investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. That's not my favorite separation of powers. Apparently USADA can force athletes into arbitration and cut deals although they have no subpoena power. They are funded by our tax dollars.

I'm tired of these cases of high profile athletes being prosecuted with our tax dollars. I have my personal opinions about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong. What I don't know is how the government or their funded agencies can justify spending millions of dollars on these cases. It's estimated that the Barry Bonds case cost anywhere from $6 million to $100 million. Result, a misdemeanor conviction. Roger Clemens trial cost $2 to $3 million. Not Guilty. I'm sure the Lance Armstrong case has cost millions. The Justice Department decided not to prosecute. The defendants have spent millions too in their defense. I'd much rather be rebuilding our infrastructure with those dollars.

This is typical behavior. Any time we perceive a problem we appoint a committee or pass a law or create an agency.  No way a current law, procedure or policy will do.  Absolutely no way common sense is to be used.   It almost never solves the problem or fixes the situation. What it does do is create another group of people that have to justify their existence, promote their continuation and gain power. The heads of these agencies are mostly egotistical men (very few women) who's main job is to consolidate power. By the way, hardly any of them were ever elite athletes.

I don't know if Barry or Roger or Lance cheated. Like I said earlier I have my opinions.

I was never a Barry or Roger fan so I didn't keep close track of their cases, although they were hard to ignore. Lance was and is still on my A-list. He excelled in biking, which I do, he survived a devastating cancer, which my Mom also did, and then dedicated a big part of his life to raising money and awareness for cancer research and treatment. To me LiveStrong and Lance Armstrong, bike guy, are separate.

Stay tuned, much more to come on this subject. No way you have no opinion on this subject.


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