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What's wrong with steroids?


At one time, using coaches was prohibited in Olympic sports. Systematic training was frowned upon. They were thought to be against the spirit of the games.

Now performance-enhancing drugs are prohibited in Olympic and most other sports, essentially for the same reason.

The current spotlight is on Major League Baseball because of the new book Game of Shadows, by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Baseball superstar Barry Bonds is its villainous protagonist.

Last week, spurred by that book, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced an investigation into the past use of steroids in the sport.

Few ask a fundamental question: Does banning such drugs make any more sense than the erstwhile ban on coaching? Certainly Game of Shadows does not ask. Its writing rests on the premise that using these drugs is a bad thing.

But to many who study the field, the answer is not at all clear.

"From what I can tell, athletes have always used this stuff," says Maxwell Mehlman, professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

"So, given the fact that pretty much throughout history athletes have used performance-enhancing substances, the question is, why are we rather suddenly trying to prevent them?" Mehlman asks.

Game of Shadows grew out of reporting by Fainaru-Wada and Williams on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, a laboratory near the San Francisco airport run by former rock musician Victor Conte that became the hub of a far-reaching scheme to provide undetectable, performance-enhancing drugs to a wide variety of athletes.

It is a compelling, fascinating story, a look into the dirty laundry basket of big-time sports. Although Bonds' name is used to sell the book, he is just one of a large cast of characters who took advantage of Conte's expertise, mostly track and field competitors.

Indeed, the baseball players come across as amateur gym rats in the drug game compared with the track athletes who came from a sport where years of drug use had produced a much more sophisticated approach.

The only reason the buff bodies of Bonds and his BALCO buddies in baseball - identified in Game of Shadows as including Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield - garnered such notice is that their sport was so late to come to the use of these drugs.

In track and field, the history of producing outstanding performances with the help of chemistry may date back "millennia," as Charlie Francis - coach of the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who lost his Olympic gold medal and world 100 meter record to a positive steroid test at the 1988 Games - wrote in his 1991 book, Speed Trap.

"Had [track and field's] banned list [of drugs] been in place in ancient Greece, many an Olympic champion might have lost his laurels for ingesting sheep's testicles - a prime source of testosterone," Francis wrote, going on to point out drugs used to enhance performance in a number of societies throughout history.

Brandy, strychnine, cocaine and such were used by Olympic athletes in the years after the Games were revived in 1896.

The muscle-building anabolic steroids were perfected in the years after World War II. The blood booster EPO was a later arrival. Their efficacy raised the fear that sports would no longer be a battle among athletes, but among chemists.

Yet chemists have always been involved in human performance, analyzing nutrition and the types and amounts of sugars and proteins and vitamins and other nutrients athletes should be ingesting to make their bodies work at their peak efficiency.

It was chemists who determined that training at high altitude boosts the number of red blood cells and thus increases muscular efficiency, and who figured out how to duplicate that by sleeping in tents that create a high-altitude atmosphere. Almost all top athletes in Olympic sports - at least in First World countries - have chemists who monitor the components of their blood to determine the proper training regimen.

The point is that athletes are always following prescribed courses of activities - including putting things into their bodies - as determined by chemists. Why are some chemical manipulations considered acceptable, perhaps even praised as great scientific advances, while these particular chemical substances are banned and denounced as morally repugnant?

"My view is that this is really a matter of taste," Mehlman says. "Lots of people don't like the idea of athletes taking drugs to build up their bodies and improve their performances, but they arbitrarily allow other things.

"Now, there's nothing wrong with sports making arbitrary rules. All rules in sports are pretty arbitrary. But look at what we have to do in order to enforce this one," he says, pointing to the draconian drug testing procedures that every athlete in Olympic sports must agree to. "Is it worth it?"

Performance-enhancing drugs raise issues that go to the heart of what people look for in sports and sports heroes. The use of such drugs can be judged to be wrong simply because it is usually against the rules (though not, until recently, in Major League Baseball). But most see it as a sign of deeper moral problems, an affront to the essence of sport.

Our admiration of athletes seems to be based on two foundations that can, at times, be contradictory. For one, we like them to be somehow touched by the gods, like the hero of Bernard Malamud's The Natural, possessed of some special characteristics that make them rise above the crowd.

This was the appeal of those in the revival of the modern Olympics as designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. These were true amateurs, who did not labor for a living and did not train for their sport but simply demonstrated their talents in a competition based on respectful fellowship.

And then there is the more American ideal of the athlete as someone who works hard to achieve distinction and then proceeds to tell others the oft-repeated lie - that if you, too, work hard enough, you can do anything. Like run 100 meters in 9.9 seconds? Or dunk a basketball? Probably not.

In any case, performance-enhancing drugs seem to be against both of these principles - a man-made elixir that promises an easy street to success. So, above all, they offend our aesthetic view of sport.

"It is part of an idyllic view of sport as something that shouldn't be corrupted," Paul Anderson, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University, says of the revulsion toward these drugs. "Whatever that means."

Part of the demonization of these drugs was their appearance at the height of the Cold War, and at the beginning of the war on drugs. At the time, the oft-told story was that the drugs were derived from Nazi experiments that used testosterone to pump up German soldiers.

"There is no evidence that this ever happened," Rob Beamish of Queen's University in Ontario says of the Nazi stories. "But it doesn't matter; the myth was created, and it takes on a life of its own."

The East Germans arrived on the Olympic scene with a vengeance in Montreal in 1976, their women swimmers in particular dominating the competition. To Americans, these muscular women were hulking, communist monsters who unfairly defeated our own natural females.

In fact, by that time the use of performance-enhancing drugs - particularly steroids - was rampant on both sides of the Iron Curtain. They were pioneered by weightlifters and others in sports - such as the shot put - where strength was paramount. They soon spread. The East Germans, with their highly organized sports system, happened to be very good at perfecting their use.

Beamish argues that drug use is an inevitable and understandable part of the Olympic scene because the games changed from de Coubertin's ideal of fellowship to being about high performance and spectacle.

"It was the aggrandizement of victory over simply taking part," he says. "Within that system, over a 20-to-25-year period, athletes continued to shift toward the performance element, the pursuit of the Olympic record. In the context of that, they start to determine how to best maximize performance."

All sorts of chemical manipulation, including drug use, was the inevitable result.

Tracy Olrich of the department of physical education and sport at Central Michigan University points out that, "In other realms, we embrace drugs for their performance enhancement. Why are things like Ritalin and Prozac prescribed? For performance enhancement.

"I have a coffeemaker in my office," he says. "It's not because I like coffee; it is purely for performance enhancement, so that when I am trying to grade papers in the middle of the afternoon, I can stay awake."

Though the Cold War is long over, drugs are still part of the demonization process. The surly Bonds makes for a convenient villain. The more heroic Mark McGwire does not. And, despite some rather damning evidence from a 1999 urine sample uncovered by the French newspaper L'Equipe, the heroic Lance Armstrong gets a pass, at least in the U.S., with a blanket denial.

Health issues are often raised, but many experts say that these are actually minimal - certainly not as dangerous as, say, playing professional football, skiing down a mountain at 60 mph or even running 120 miles a week. And the risks could be limited further if the drugs came out from underground.

There is no doubt that, like alcohol, steroids should not be used by youngsters. But in the current climate, those are the athletes never tested while adults undergo stringent procedures.

Perhaps the biggest myth about drug use is that those caught are the exception, not the rule, making them cheaters gaining an unfair advantage. As Game of Shadows makes clear, an amateur chemist such as Conte could fool the top drug testers in the world for years. Certainly more experienced chemists are even now doing a better job.

And, Beamish and others argue, the top athletes know this and act accordingly, most using whatever they can to maximize their performance and not get caught breaking any rules.

"It's like Charlie Francis said," Beamish says, quoting Ben Johnson's coach. "It is a level playing field; it's just not the level playing field you thought it was."

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