Drugs and sports

Sunday, January 20, 2013

To most, it was no surprise when seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance enhancing drugs.

Those who pay attention to sports know that Armstrong was fighting a losing battle when it came to defending his innocence. Too many people who had known him were telling stories of needles and cover-ups. The chain to Armstrong's championship narrative was coming loose, and now he's tumbling wheel over wheel down the mountain. On the way down, he must face the wrath of the people he crushed during his defiant defense of his multimillion-dollar story, which included his fight against cancer.

Another reason his confession was no surprise is because we've seen this story play out before. We've seen it with our Missouri hero, Mark McGwire, who in 1998 bashed the single-season home run record with the St. Louis Cardinals. He denied, denied some more, blamed the media and eventually came clean. His entire career was tainted. Then we saw Barry Bonds. Then there was Roger Clemens. Manny Ramirez. Alex Rodriguez. We saw evidence of steroids with a number of other borderline Hall of Fame baseball players, a handful of football players. We saw it with track stars (Marion Jones among the most famous).

There will be no new members inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. Steroids are to blame, as voters attempt to send a message through their voting.

The stories of performance enhancing drugs and professional and Olympic athletes aren't going away any time soon. Our society is trying to come to grips with the infusion of PEDs over more than a decade. The character carnage is finally washing ashore.

Perhaps the most troubling of any PED story recently illuminated comes from an investigation done by The Associated Press on screening in NCAA sports. The AP studied 61,000 individual athletes whose name appeared on rosters for the same teams for multiple years. It also calculated players' ratio of height to weight, analyzing weight gains that would be considered abnormal. It found 4,700 football players on NCAA rosters who gained 20 or more pounds from one season to the next. In roughly 100 cases, players gained 80 pounds in a season. The NCAA's positive steroid test rate is extremely low. Current and former college players told the AP that steroid use is more common than they anticipated. One Division I player gained 81 pounds in a single year and was not tested, even though the school's policy uses a "reasonable suspicion" testing policy.

As Americans, we love our sports. We love our athletes. The faster they run and the harder they throw, the more we revel in their talent. It's up to us as individuals to teach our youth that integrity, a level playing field and personal health is more important than notoriety.

The personal costs of using drugs to gain an advantage in sports are enormous -- not just to the individuals caught, but to the next class of athletes climbing the mountain.

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