Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Should Sport Drop Those Doping Bans?

A blogger in the United Kingdom, commenting on the Lance Armstrong case, recently suggested that sport should lift all rules banning performance enhancing substances.

He argues that even the most stringent penalties have not halted the practice; that these are, after all, adults capable of making their own decisions about health, diet, training regimens etc.; and that with such huge amounts of money at stake, it is only human nature to seek an "edge" on the competition.

He has a strong case, in my opinion, where cycling is concerned. I want to believe that Armstrong really is clean despite the testimony of 26 people, mostly former teammates, to the contrary. Miguel Indurain of Spain, who along with four other riders has won five Tours de France untainted by doping allegations, told a Madrid radio station this week that he believes in Armstrong's innocence. He said the entire case was ``bizarre'' since Armstong never tested positive for doping. "It is strange they take away his tours because of the testimonies of some teammates,'' Indurain said.

Someone with inside knowledge of cycling, and no ax to grind, told me that "all three podium places in the Tour for at least ten years have gone to cyclists who either tested positive or otherwise were known to have used banned substances." If that's so, where's the edge?

This would include Floyd Landis of the United States, first and foremost of the Armstrong ex-teammates to point the finger, who was stripped of his own Tour de France title after testing positive.

Track and field is another sport in which it could be argued that eliminating substance bans would save a lot of time and money and not really compromise the competition. It's been 25 years since Ben Johnson of Canada tested positive after breaking the world record for 100 meters by a full tenth of a second.  World records at this distance usually are matters of hundredths of a second.

Johnson's punishments appear not to have diminished the practice in track and field.  Marion Jones, the great American track and field athlete, was jailed for lying about substance abuse.  Even Florence Griffith-Joyner, the memorable "Flo Jo," has been subject to allegations of doping. She dominated women's track and field in the manner that Armstrong dominated cycling with his seven Tour de France victories. Flo Jo, who died in 1998 after an epileptic seizure, set records in the 100 and 200 meter sprints that have never been seriously challenged in the 24 years since she set them. She never tested positive for any banned substance, but, as was the case when Armstrong was competing, clean blood tests didn't stop tongues from wagging.

And baseball! How many asterisks would it take to print a record book of achievements by steroid users and other performance enhancing drug users? Why not allow any players who's willing to take the health risk go ahead and use them, to make the playing fields level? Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in one season, and 711 in his career, boosted only by booze and hot dogs. Yet his  home run records have all been taken by suspect sluggers like Barry Bonds and Mark Maguire. The hero of one of this year's World Series team's has served a suspension for banned substances. Why not let all the players choose to use or not use?

The case weakens, in my view, for football players.  Allowing the use of steroids and other chemicals that artificially increase the size and strength of football players is life threatening for other football players.  I was acquainted with the young Alex Karras, the fun - loving Detroit Lion who became a fair comic actor, and it saddens me deeply that he suffered dementia for so long before dying of his accumulation of football injuries. There is, of course, knowledge aforethought of the risks entailed in playing football for a livelihood -- as there is, say, for boxing as well -- and if an unimpaired adult chooses to take that risk, so be it.

As one who has always enjoyed sports as a participant and an observer, I'd like to think that wonderful performances like Flo Jo's and Lance Armstrong's -- or Roger Federer's, for that matter -- are the result of natural ability and good training, not chemical enhancers. But that is, of course, naive.

Speaking of Federer, his sport of tennis has never had a major doping scandal.  Perhaps nobody has yet come up with a performance-enhancing drug that is specific to the sport.  I almost wish they would.  I still play the game even though I'm too old and physically spent to play it well.  But if they came up with a pill . . . . .

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