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This Is Your Sport, on Dope 

State Sen. Don Perata's bill on drug testing for pro athletes isn't nearly tough enough on doped-up athletes or their enablers

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
One evening 20 years ago, about two dozen 18-year-olds and I sat in a drab U.S. Olympic Training Center dormitory, listening to our back-slapping, father-figure cycling coach tell tales of a wondrous imagined future.

The U.S. coaching squad had obtained morsels of intelligence from behind the Iron Curtain, then the Holy Land of amateur sport. Eastern European trainers, the coach explained, were extracting natural human growth hormone from the pituitary glands of infants (we weren't told whether the donors were dead or alive), then injecting athletes with the strength-giving serum. Even more promising: Soviet-bloc trainers had taken the blood of cyclists, spun it in a centrifuge, and then injected the oxygen-carrying red blood cells that had been thus separated back into the cyclists' bodies, thereby replicating the cardiovascular effect of high-altitude training.

Before long, our coach enthused, American trainers might use these same methods to make us champions.

Two years later, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone broke stories about coaches for the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team who had conspired to "blood dope" athletes by injecting them with red blood cells separated from the cyclists' own blood. Some of the athletes developed debilitating flulike symptoms and couldn't compete. One cyclist, Steve Hegg, won a gold medal that was later withdrawn.

I recount this macabre tale -- in which kindly adults subjected boys to Mengele-like physiology experiments -- to illustrate the irresistibility of the force that compels athletes, trainers, their sponsors, and sport-sanctioning organizations to facilitate doping.

This force is similar to those that lead corporate executives to steal, authors to plagiarize, politicians to pander, and artists to produce kitsch. But this corrupting drive is more powerful than the others, because at a certain elite level of sport, winning is more viscerally fulfilling than any other possible high. Add money, fame, and mass adulation to the sheer exhilaration of victory, and it becomes clear why, for the most determined athletes, winning is worth any sacrifice -- cheating included. As a result, doping is ubiquitous in every big-money sport for which there exists a helpful, if illegal, performance-enhancing drug or procedure.

In response to news stories about unchecked steroid use in baseball, the state Senate's Arts, Entertainment, Sports and Internet Committee has unanimously approved a bill sponsored by East Bay Sen. Don Perata (D) that would require every major sports association playing in California to have a state-certified drug testing policy or be banned from the state. At minimum, approved drug policies would require testing once a year; players caught doping would be suspended for at least one game.

The bill is in a sort of limbo right now: Legislators will either take the measure up this month, before their summer recess begins, or let it die.

The bill is, in some ways, unprecedented. It would for the first time legally require Major League Baseball teams to test players for drugs on a regular schedule, something the team owners' current agreement with the Players Association does not include. In an extreme scenario, the bill could cause Major League Baseball to move the Giants, A's, Dodgers, and Padres from California. A slightly less extreme response: Owners might have to insist, in contract negotiations this summer, that the Players Association accept token drug testing. Or baseball could make an all-American response to the California legislation and sue, seeking to invalidate it.

Even if the Players Association agrees to accept drug testing of the type required by Perata's bill, I don't believe the measure would significantly reduce performance-enhancing drug use in baseball, or any other sport. Like the pitiable efforts of governments and sports associations outside the U.S., this measure would create the appearance of curbing drugs in sport, while, in fact, allowing the problem to flourish.

Since the ancient Olympic Games, sport has enjoyed a historical role -- alongside religion, science, art, music, politics, and literature -- as one of the grandest forms of human expression. In 2002, cheating has reduced this uplifting spectacle to a series of tawdry, meaningless frauds that heap financial rewards on those who are the most dedicated and wily of the defrauders.

Repairing the damage caused by drugs in sport will require government action far more dramatic than the drug-testing measure now before the California state Senate. Sports doping will not recede until the government itself controls drug testing for athletes, and doping becomes investigated and prosecuted as a crime, with perpetrators and enablers -- among them, the California biotech companies that produce the drugs often misused in sports-doping schemes -- running a real risk of punishment.

Except for American hockey and baseball, most professional sports around the world have instituted doping-control programs that, on their surface, appear rigorous -- even onerous. Professional cyclists in Europe can expect to be visited by unannounced, syringe-bearing drug testers, night or day, at any time of year, on- or off-season. Professional football randomly tests players for steroids and other chemicals. The women's tennis tour recently joined the men's tour in instituting random, out-of-competition drug testing. And the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA have long tested athletes extensively for banned substances.

All of the referenced sports nonetheless remain rife with drugs.

Organizers of the Tour de France boasted last month that hundreds of random drug tests had not produced a single "positive" result during the three-week event. A few days later French customs officials discovered a cache of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs in the trunk of a car belonging to the wife of the Tour's third-place finisher. And last week the doctor who developed the test for erythropoietin, a red-blood-cell-boosting medication that is the Tour's most frequently abused drug, conceded his test is largely ineffective as currently used.

Professional football players are randomly tested. Regardless, the sport gives every appearance of swimming in juice. In 1972 the average Super Bowl player weighed 248 pounds; this year he weighed 304. Linebackers used to average 225 pounds and run a 4.7-second 40-yard dash. Now they're 265 and run it in 4.5. Football strength-training techniques, meanwhile, haven't changed appreciably during the past 30 years.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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