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Beyond Baseball: Steroids - here, there, and everywhere

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My introduction to the world of steroids has been fascinating. It reminds me of when I had twins unexpectedly more than twenty-seven years ago. Suddenly, strangers were approaching me in the supermarket and telling me how their mother/husband/third cousin was a twin, or how they'd always wanted twins. It was an eye-opener for me. I had never given twins a thought until the second one popped out eighteen long minutes after the first. It's like that with this drugs-in-sports issue. Now that I'm aware of it, I see it's been here the whole time. I was simply oblivious.

Recognizing the pandemic drug use in sports has changed the way I look at  MLB (Major League Baseball). (Here is the first article of this series.) I don't regard this as making excuses; context is always relevant. What we have is no less than a worldwide culture of cheating that infects everything it touches. If you've been following sports for years, maybe none of this is a surprise, but for a newbie like me, it's, well, news. I feel soiled.

In 2003, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Sports did a feature on the top 10 Drug Scandals of the last several decades. Six of the stories centered on the Olympics; another was about the Pan Am Games, the Western Hemisphere's equivalent of the Olympics. This comes as no surprise to steroid kingpin Victor Conte, who's in a position to know. He said on ABC's "20/20":
I'm here to tell you right now is that not only is there no Santa Claus, but there's no Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy either, in the world of sport ... I mean the whole history of the Olympic Games is just full of corruption, cover-up, performance-enhancing drug use -- it's not what the world thinks it is."
Caught in CBC's Top Ten dragnet: swimming, professional cycling and baseball, all of track and field, cross-country skiing, soccer and tennis. Athletes hailed from China, Ireland, Canada, the U.S., Austria, Russia, Finland, East Germany, and every other country where athletes used nandrolone (story #10). In the race to the bottom, East Germany was champ. "E. German athletes & government sponsored cheating" examines how a relatively small country achieved athletic success in a very short period of time.
Thousands of East German athletes were given performance-enhancing steroids in an effort to prove East German superiority over the West. Many athletes thought they were simply taking vitamins... After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many athletes came forward to tell how they were given frequent doses of pills and needles of unknown substances.
The head of the sports program and his medical director were later charged and found guilty of "systematic and overall doping in [East German] competitive sports." Their punishment for this egregious behavior: suspended jail sentences and nominal fines.

Something quite similar transpired in China. Between 1990-2003, Chinese swimmers raked in the medals but forty of them also failed drug tests. This is three times the rate of any other country during that same time period.

In 1994, an article entitled "Olympics; U.S. Coach Blames China's Approach" appeared in the New York Times. Anita DeFrantz, one of our representatives to the International Olympic Committee, is quoted,
coaches, trainers, administrators and doctors should be held as accountable as athletes when drug use is uncovered. "If anybody should be targeted, it should be the administrators," DeFrantz said.
Her comment is particularly noteworthy when read in tandem with CBC's #3 story: "The U.S. Track & Field cover-ups." In 2003, Dr. Wade Exum, the former anti-doping chief of the U.S. Olympic Committee, released a 30,000-page document to Sports Illustrated. It detailed how over one hundred American athletes failed drug tests between 1988-2000, yet were able to take part in international competitions.

CBC deems this "perhaps the biggest doping cover-up in all of sports." The article goes on to say,
These cover-ups still beg the question: How could a country's own Olympic federation turn their backs on the oath of fair play and allow drug cheats to compete for a decade's worth of Olympic Games?
What do we call this behavior? Just looking the other way? Or worse, were we doing exactly what we had been lambasting China for?


Over the years, many Olympic medals have been won under the cloud of banned substances. Some, but definitely not all of those medals, have been rescinded. The systemic East German infractions, for instance, are now safe from review, due to a recent IOC ruling.

Marion Jones is one athlete who did not escaped scrutiny or punishment. She is, arguably, the biggest Olympic fish caught in the drug net so far. The legendary American track star won five medals -- three gold and two bronze -- at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. For years, Jones denied using banned substances. This fall, she finally came clean in court. A few weeks ago, Jones was stripped of her Olympic medals and erased from the record books by the IOC.

Jones's meltdown has far-reaching repercussions, going far beyond her personal fate. "The reshuffling of Jones' medals could affect the medal status of more than three dozen other athletes," one ESPN article claims. Katerina Thanou was the runner-up in the 100-meter race and was later banned for missing a drug test before the 2004 Games in her native Greece. Awarding Thanou the gold now would, ironically, highlight the doping problem that refuses to go away. The IOC may decide to leave the gold medal spot vacant, perhaps the best of several unpalatable options.

CJ Hunter, Marion Jones's husband at the time, held the world record for shot put in 1999. Four times over the summer of 2000, his urine samples tested positive (1,000 times the allowable amount) for the use of nandrolone, a steroid and banned substance. Two weeks before the Sydney Olympics, Hunter withdrew, due to a knee injury. Several athletic organizations -- the IAAF [International Amateur Athletics Federation] and the USATF [USA Track and Field] -- were aware of his positive tests but had not made them public. It's unclear what they would have done, had he not voluntarily withdrawn.

Victor Conte's BALCO Laboratories supplied many amateur and professional athletes with steroids and other banned substances. Conte developed a designer steroid (THG), which was undetectable by drug testing and therefore highly prized by many competitive athletes. Jones worked with Conte for several months prior to her success at the Sydney Olympics. Jones and sprinter Tim Montgomery shared several coaches and trained together during this period. Starting in 2000, Conte worked with Montgomery, the former coach of disgraced Canadian Ben Johnson, and two other coaches to make Montgomery the fastest man in the world. "Project World Record" utilized a regimen of steroids and human growth hormones. Two years later, Montgomery posted the world record for the 100-meter race. But, because of his illegal use of performance-enhancing substances, the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport, the final arbiter for Olympic-level athletes) banned him for two years and voided wins since March 2001, including his world record. His reputation is in tatters.

The tangled web connecting Jones, Montgomery, Hunter, Barry Bonds, Victor Conte, and Charlie Francis illustrates the intertwining of amateurs, professionals, suppliers, and the drugs themselves.

The Economist, an unlikely source to weigh in on "Drugs and the Olympics", (August 5, 2004 issue), nevertheless does a good job tying the present to the past on the eve of the Athens Olympics.
"Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?" asks Eric Liddell in that cinematic celebration of the Olympian ideal, "Chariots of Fire". The runner's answer? "From within." Eighty years after Liddell won his gold medal, for competitors at the Olympic games starting next week in Athens that power may come instead from without-- in the form of drugs designed to maximise performance.

There was "doping" in sport even before the days of Liddell; cyclists, boxers, swimmers and others made use of alcohol, strychnine, cocaine and sundry other substances to ease the pain and give them an edge. But by 1988, when a Canadian runner, Ben Johnson, was stripped of his 100m gold at the Seoul Olympics for failing a drugs test, it was clear that doping had become rife--not just in nasty communist regimes such as East Germany and China, with their famously manly female athletes, but in western countries too. If doping may play a lesser role than it might have done this month in Athens, it is only because allegations about the use of the steroid tetrahydrogestrinone by clients of BALCO, a dietary supplements firm in California, have deprived the Olympics of some of its likeliest medalists -- as well as highlighting the pervasive use of steroids in some non-Olympic sports such as America's Major League Baseball, now dubbed the "new East Germany."
Baseball, the "new East Germany," has borne the brunt of the bad publicity partly because of its prized position as our cherished, national pastime. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. We find ourselves not so surprised as disappointed. But, baseball does not operate in a vacuum. It is influenced by the culture around it and by the behavior of other athletes, whether they are fellow ballplayers or not. Keep in mind that baseball shares the drugs, the flouting of the rules, management's mixed messages and complicity, and the startling lack of serious consequences for misbehavior that characterize virtually all of the sports kingdom. That we Americans have always identified with this particular sport, its players, teams, and the magic of the moment, should not blind us to an essentially identical set-up and behavior.

Illegal doping recognizes no national boundaries. It is an inevitable offshoot of a system that stresses winning at all costs, invading every sport, entangling amateur and pro alike. The conviction that everyone else is using these illegal performance-enhancing substances creates a vicious cycle. In fact, the widespread use of drugs is the rationale that Conte gives for supplying it to athletes.
[He] asserts the use of performance-enhancing drugs is essential to level the playing field. "It's not cheating if everybody is doing it. And if you've got the knowledge that that's what everyone is doing, and those are the real rules of the game, then you're not cheating."
That is the conundrum that players confront. Conte's morally bankrupt view is sadly persuasive, given the reality of sports today. Cheating may be cheating whether one or all are engaged in it. But, drug testing is unable to keep up with the new drugs constantly invented to outsmart the testers. Marion Jones, only years later acknowledging her guilt, passed every one of the hundreds of drug tests she took. As Conte said in his "20/20" interview, "[avoiding testing positive] is like taking candy from a baby." The odds have favored those who have been willing to sell their soul and risk their health for the seductive promise of fame and fortune.

I'm reminded of a cartoon I saw recently which perfectly captured baseball's current state. It shows a Santa sagging under the weight of the supersized ballplayer sitting on his lap. What does he want for Christmas? His reputation. The American public would like our illusions back, too, but I think we're out of luck.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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Joan,   Fascinating article!  I had no i... by Joan Brunwasser on Tuesday, Jan 1, 2008 at 8:48:05 PM
i fixed MLB to read Major League Baseball.  I... by Joan Brunwasser on Tuesday, Jan 1, 2008 at 8:49:58 PM
This really is an example of the decline of civili... by Joan Brunwasser on Tuesday, Jan 1, 2008 at 8:54:32 PM
Hi Joan! I enjoy your writing a lot, by the way.Ju... by Joan Brunwasser on Wednesday, Jan 2, 2008 at 5:30:32 PM
Dear Joan - thank you for your eye-opening article... by Joan Brunwasser on Thursday, Jan 3, 2008 at 6:22:23 AM
Major League Baseball.  sorry i didn't ma... by Joan Brunwasser on Thursday, Jan 3, 2008 at 6:23:16 AM