The Truth About Steroids

I covered the summer Olympics for the first time in Montreal in 1976. That was almost thirty years ago. On my first day in the Olympic Village I strolled into a gathering of what American track and field competitors called "the whales"-- men's shot put, discus and hammer throw competitors. I hadn't been sitting down more than fifteen minutes when one of the guys began blithely chatting with me about his anabolic steroid regimen, and what the Eastern Europeans might possibly be doing that was different. He was wondering if I had gotten a chance to speak to any of them.

Around that same time I had some occasion to cover stories in the Major League baseball world, and I got to see it from the executive suite perspective. On the field, baseball was at that moment a game way more largely fueled by amphetamines than the public could possibly have conceived. Some of the most revered players in the game, beloved for their hustle and commitment, were juiced to the teeth on greenies every time they wore the uniform. But upper management seldom knew that, or perhaps they didn't care at all. It was one way of conquering a persistent hangover, and in a world where some of the people were drunk half the time, and half the people were drunk all the time, that was a daily priority for players, managers and executives as well.

It's not like that now. Free agency and the luxury tax turned every executive job into a real job, and the front office alcohol cloud is gone. But the mentality that politely overlooked the quiet depredations of the players never left, and amid that benign neglect the steroid culture grew.

The current big-sports circus of testing for performance-enhancers, testifying about them and calculating their effect is absurd in the sense that the proper time frame might have been sometime in the early eighties. This horse is so far out of the barn he may as well be put out to stud. Steroids and their imitators have been readily available to top athletes in every major sport for up to thirty years, and they are distributed through a massive pipeline that involves athletes, trainers, doctors, other medical personnel, agents, coaches, bodyguards, sycophants and hangers-on of all descriptions. The number of big-time athletes who have used them regularly is much larger than the public would ever want to know. The number who have used them situationally, just to recover from injury, dramatically expands the pool. The public reinforces this, and has from the beginning, by buying into the popular mentality that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

In China, sports authorities determined after the disqualification of the women's swim team at the 1992 World Championships that they wanted to be on the clean side of this controversy. So these days in China if a state-supported athlete tests positive for an Olympics-banned substance they face a fine and a jail term. The second positive test brings a lifetime ban. When the Chinese try to win the medal count from us at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they will be competing cleanly. Will we?

Illicit drugs move around the world because of profit. The performance-enhancing substance culture has mushroomed in American sport because of profit. Is it going to go away because of administrative penalties within the sports leagues themselves? No way. Are we as serious as the Chinese are about wanting to get rid of it entirely? What do you think?