DEALING WITH DOPING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kornelia Ender was quite a swimmer in the 1972 Summer Olympics, winning three silver medals for East Germany as a scrawny 13-year-old.

Four years later in Montreal, Ender strode to the pool with the same slim waist but with the shoulders and upper arms of a wrestler. She swam four events, won four gold medals and set four world records.

Little did the world know it was receiving its introduction to a saga that carries on today and that, if you ask the experts, may never end.

Ender admitted 15 years later that East German officials had pumped her full of unidentified drugs, causing her to gain 18 pounds of muscle in the run-up to the Games. Around the same time in 1991, former NFL lineman Lyle Alzado lay withering and dying from a brain tumor, the first suspected casualty of that league's doping outbreak.

Seven years later, a reporter noted a bottle labeled androstenedione in the locker of mammoth slugger Mark McGwire, who stood a few home runs short of eclipsing Roger Maris' 37-year-old season record.

So began baseball's steroid song, which hit another low note this week with the release of a book excerpt detailing Barry Bonds' alleged heavy use of performance enhancers. Also this week, Dr. James Shortt, physician to several Carolina Panthers, pleaded guilty to federal steroid charges.

Thirty years have passed since Montreal. Steroids have become illegal in the United States, and the governing bodies of most Olympic and pro sports have widened testing policies and toughened penalties. But the sense that doping is somehow intrinsic to athletes' lust for self-improvement is stronger than ever.

"In the world of high-stakes professional sports, you have to assume the incentives make doping irresistible," said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who has studied the subject since the 1980s. "To assume otherwise is to assume the whole mentality of athletic subcultures can change overnight. Twenty years has taught me to expect otherwise."

The audience may show outrage at Bonds but shows few signs of wanting deeper change, said Dr. William Howard, a specialist in sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital.

"The public has gotten used to these cartoon characters, coming out with 18-inch biceps like the Incredible Hulk," he said. "And people like it. They don't want to go back to the 1950s."

Widespread problem

According to Game of Shadows, the forthcoming book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, Bonds grew incensed that his all-around game ceased to be the talk of baseball as McGwire and Sammy Sosa launched their home run chase.

So the multimillionaire began ingesting the anabolic steroid Winstrol, the book says. He later allegedly expanded his regimen to include human growth hormone and designer drugs from the infamous BALCO laboratory.

The results were stunning. Bonds' already impressive home run rate doubled.

His experience echoed those of Olympians like Ender and Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who suddenly went from good to the best ever before being busted in 1988.

With his often surly demeanor, Bonds makes an easy villain.

But American fans make a mistake by believing steroid users are the few bad apples in the barrel, Hoberman said, when the reality may be that many or most elite athletes will do anything to get bigger, stronger and faster. That hasn't changed since 1976 and probably won't, he said.

"The big picture," Hoberman said, "is one in which there are substantial populations of highly motivated athletes for whom self-restraint on ethical grounds is simply not a priority."

Europeans seem to have already reached this conclusion about their beloved cyclists. They start with the assumption that elite riders will dope if they can get away with it. That's why they found America's unclouded love for Lance Armstrong so ludicrous, wrote Daniel Coyle in his book Lance Armstrong's War.

The calculations are simple and consistent, doping experts say. Excellent athletes tend to be incredibly competitive by nature and see that drugs will help them win. That's the No. 1 reason to use. Greatness in the Olympics or in the pros leads to fame and riches that most couldn't achieve in other fields. That's the No. 2 reason.

Athletes are taught to reach for an edge in every situation, and that switch can't simply be turned off when drugs come into play, Hoberman said.

"They're asked to be really ruthless on the one hand and to be supremely self-contained on the other," he said. "It's an impossible situation and one way to understand why this is not going to go away."

Attention lacking

The amazing results help explain why steroid use continues in the wake of cautionary tales. Earlier this week, Shortt, a former trainer for the Panthers, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to illegally distribute anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. Though the story received national attention when it broke, only one major newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, covered the trial, which took place in Columbia, S.C.

"I'm really surprised at how little attention that case received in the media," said Dr. Gary Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List and Methods Committee who served as an expert witness for the government during the trial. "Here you have six players on a team that went to the Super Bowl (in January 2004], and their [drug] use was documented by the trainer for as long as a year. None of them ever tested positive, and yet all of them were using human growth hormone. ... That shows me the NFL has a problem. The entire issue is a lot more pervasive than people let on."

Wadler believes that if sports really want to get serious about drug testing, the only effective method is blood testing. Human growth hormone can't be detected through urine tests, and it has already passed traditional anabolic steroids as the drug of choice for athletes who want to avoid detection.

"I've been talking about blood tests, but people just pooh-pooh me on it," Wadler said. "Why? The Shortt case really gave us documented proof. These players were using on a regular basis, getting tested, and nothing."

The issue of performance-enhancing drugs isn't limited to professional athletes. This week, three University of Delaware football players were arrested and charged with armed robbery and unlawful imprisonment for allegedly holding a teammate at gunpoint and stealing 18 vials of the injectable steroid Omnadren.

So have we already slid halfway down a slippery slope that will have us watching androids tear each other limb from limb in 50 years? That's the dark horizon anticipated by many who've studied the possibilities of gene doping.

"It's going to happen," Howard said. "There are genes that control muscle growth, and we're going to learn how to manipulate them. It will be expensive but people will pay $200,000 to make $10 million."

Seeking deterrents

The International Olympic Committee and professional sports leagues have approached doping as an enforcement problem. Better tests and stiffer penalties, they say, will make sports cleaner. That's the party line in baseball right now, where players and officials say new testing programs and stiffer penalties will wipe out most drug use.

"I would think [steroid use] would decrease significantly with the penalties being what they are, and all the attention to the testing," said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan.

Players painted an even brighter picture.

"I think it's playing itself out," said Orioles outfielder David Newhan. "I don't know what the numbers were, but I think with the testing where it is heading and where we are at right now, I think it's going to be effective. Guys are going to have to realize that they are going to have to work hard and eat right and do things the right way."

With enforcement agents now working full-time to keep up with the latest drugs, there is reason for hope, said Larry Bowers, senior managing director for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

"When athletes perceive that there's an uneven playing field, they have a much easier time rationalizing that they need to do it, too," Bowers said. "When there are six options for doing something, and we can take away five and the other is really expensive, we have created a deterrent."

Dr. Steven Ungerleider, a prominent sports psychologist and the author of Faust Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine, said the most recent Olympics in Italy might have opened the door to governments stepping in. In Turin, the Italian police initially agreed not to take criminal action against suspected dopers, but three days into the Games, they raided the residences of Austrian biathlon and cross-country ski teams looking for banned substances.

"I think that may have opened a new chapter in enforcement," Ungerleider said. "If that's going to be the case, 2008 in China is just around the corner. If there is a perception on the street that you will be prosecuted, you won't go home with your team, and you might spend years and years in jail, that might actually become a deterrent."

Even some high school associations have started drug testing in hopes of weeding out users at a younger age.

But some researchers who've lived with the issue for a long time say tougher testing can't fix a society that constantly demands and rewards more spectacular physical performance.

Those who truly want to resist, Hoberman said "will have to dismantle the whole system of incentives."

He doesn't hold a lot of hope for a cultural change in elite sports. Neither does Howard.

"I don't think the public is interested in slower, smaller, weaker in pro sports," he said.

Both said that those repulsed by doping may simply have to leave high-level sports behind and embrace a more personal love of games.

"It really does become a personal issue," Hoberman said. "In that sense, it really depends what you think sport is about. If you believe it's about honest competition and self-discovery and self-respect and forming friendships, then doping doesn't have a place in that kind of sports."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Kevin Van Valkenburg and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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