Athletes, it’s simple, really: Don’t dope!
Athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs for years to gain a competitive edge over their opponents. For a decade, it came to be known as the steroid era in Major League Baseball. In 2007, a report linked dozens of current and former players to PEDs including slugger Mark McGwire, legendary pitcher Roger Clemens and the homerun King Barry Bonds. In 2011, Bonds was convicted for being evasive about his links to the illegal drug, and Clemens was acquitted earlier this year, leading many people to conclude that the drug issue was a thing of the past in baseball.
But to the chagrin of commissioner Bud Selig, just when we thought the baseball was headed in the right direction, a black steroid cloud still hovers over the sport. First it was the baby-faced MVP of the National League, Ryan Braun, who tested positive for elevated testosterone last fall. Then, last week, San Francisco Giants’ outfielder, and frontrunner for the NL batting title, Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games for a positive testosterone test, tainting his MVP performance in the NL’s 8-0 win against the American League in 2012 All-Star game, last month. And on Wednesday, 39-year-old Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon, was the latest to be given a 50-game suspension for testing positive for an elevated level of testosterone, the same offense committed by Cabrera. Colon’s case was the fifth offense this season, with more players likely to be discovered for using banned substances.
Athletes just don’t stop cheating. Performance enhancing drugs just don’t disappear. The steroid-era, as baseball has learned this month, is more likely to be a permanent state of affairs than an ugly chapter that can be closed. The asterisks multiply, the positive tests keep emerging and suspensions are still being dished out.
“What you realize is that no matter what the risks of cheating, no matter what the odds of getting caught, some percentage of athletes are still going to cheat,” Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, explained to The New York Times. At the XXX Olympiad in London, eleven athletes were barred from the Summer Games for illegal drug use. That is more than twice the number of suspensions in baseball this season, and drug testing in the Olympics substantially predates testing in baseball. Unfortunately, that suggests that no testing system, as tough as it may try to be, is ever going to scare an entire sport straight.
According to Yahoo! Sports, last season, MLB ran 3,868 drug tests. That includes one in spring training and one random in-season test per player, plus an additional 1,468. That is not enough. This is not close to enough. The NFL says it runs about 14,000 tests on its 2,500 players. That’s nearly six per player. Some baseball players get tested twice– and one of those tests is a gimme. Furthermore, MLB will run only 200 tests this offseason. That’s a derisory amount. Of its 1,200 players, one in six will be tested during three months in which someone with the proper motivation and drugs can overhaul his body.
The good news is that two players in a week have been caught in the act by baseball’s testing system. But the bad news is, the use of synthetic testosterone is still extremely difficult to detect, as it supposedly vanishes from the body’s system within six to eight hours. PED testing is in its 10th season, and the sport’s program has evolved. But, it’s time for another change. If that includes harsher penalties, so be it. If the union wants to prove its seriousness and allow monetary disincentives, that’s even better. First and foremost, though, baseball must test more if it’s serious about stemming PED use. The union agreed to blood testing for HGH this spring. Urinating in a cup a few more times a year may discourage players from using and may not, but it’s critical both sides agree to try an easy fix.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching case of them all is that of retired cyclist, Lance Armstrong. Armstrong, who is a global sports icon following his battle with cancer, won the Tour de France an unprecedented seven consecutive times. On Thursday, after more than a decade of refuting accusations that he had used banned substances –including steroids and blood doping– during his celebrated cycling career, Armstrong declared he would not continue to contest the drug charges levied against him by the USADA that threaten his legacy as one of the greatest cyclists of all-time. On Friday, Tygart and the USADA stripped the cycling legend of his seven Tour de France titles, erasing one of the most incredible achievements in sports after deciding he had used performance-enhancing drugs to do it.
According to the World Anti-Doping Code, Armstrong’s decision to quit fighting –although he still maintains his innocence– means atop of being stripped of his seven Tour titles, he will lose the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Olympics and all other titles, awards and money he won from August 1998 forward. It also means that he will be barred for life from competing, coaching or having any official role with the sport or any Olympic sport that follows the World Anti-Doping Code. Armstrong’s choice to accept his sanction tarnishes the athletic achievements of an athlete who inspired millions with his story of cancer survival.
“It’s a sad day for all of us who love sports and our athletic heroes,” Tygart said in the Times. “It’s yet another heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition.”
With Armstrong going down and the rash of testosterone positives recently in baseball, a more pertinent question has arise: Is doping the sign of a widespread epidemic across the spectrum of sports? Sadly, in the modern-day world of big-time sports, where it often pays to try to beat the system, and athletes are looking to gain that edge, no sport will officially be considered clean. We can only hope that our athletic heroes will ultimately, just say no to dope.