Steroids technology, market a dose of sad reality for sports

Commentary

January 23, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

THE MINUTE President Bush stared glinty-eyed into the camera and went Clint Eastwood on the issue of steroids, you knew we were going to spend the next few news cycles rehashing the litany of steroid abuses/abusers going on in sports.

Quick, what's WADA?

What's HGH, THG, EPO, Balco?

Who's Dick Pound, Victor Conte, Kelli White?

To refresh my memory on this mind-numbing topic, I hit the Internet. Guess what? Reading online about steroids, I amazingly found links to steroid sellers on Internet sites of a least two of America's largest newspapers.

There they were. How to buy steroids. Straightforward, no-nonsense advertisements pulsing on my PC monitor right there at the end of stories about how negatively steroids have affected sports.

Elitesteroids.com.

Check it out.

Click.

The president is probably onto something. So far, there's greater evidence of steroids' pervasive infiltration into our mass culture than there is evidence of Iraqi WMD.

According to Dr. Gary Wadler, a New York University associate professor and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, steroids are available on the "black market. They come in from Mexico and other countries. High school kids are using it. Boys and girls are using it. The elite athletes certainly have access. Those who are determined to try and gain unfair athletic advantage at any cost can get anabolic steroids."

In a divided Congress in a tempestuous election year, there's little doubt the president needed at least one issue to inspire both-sides-of-the-aisle applause during his State of the Union address.

Steroids send "the wrong message that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character," Bush said.

He got a little flak from some quarters for not pressing any specific enforcement policy, but what's the president supposed to do? Threaten to ship steroid cheats off to Guantanamo Bay?

Maybe that's not a bad idea. The only problem is that some reality TV executive would roll tape for a Superstars on Steroids special, providing our beloved sports stars further excuses for pumping up.

This week, see the big stars compete for all the "magnesium" they can eat.

Jason Giambi vs. Barry Bonds.

Bill Romanowski vs. C.J. Hunter.

Kelli White vs. Regina Jacobs.

If Bush's mandate to professional athletes and sports leagues to clean up steroid use was good politics, so be it. It was a legitimate use of a bully pulpit. And who needs bullying more than cheaters?

There's no other way to describe athletes who know they are violating the spirit of fair competition when they chemically alter themselves for enhanced performance.

This is a moral issue as much as it is an administrative or legislative issue. By necessity, shaming people into doing the right thing is all that's left. Although, when was the last time shame worked on anyone who has already decided to cheat?

Even when federal laws or league rules are in place, cheaters find ways to cheat.

Worse, experts say that science will soon enough allow cheaters to stay so far ahead of the law that anti-doping efforts will be a lost cause.

That was the disturbing conclusion writer Michael Sokolove came to in Sunday's New York Times magazine's cover story, "The Lab Animal."

Forget blood doping, human growth hormone or designer steroids; advances in gene therapy might provide cheaters with new and undetectable means for enhancing their performances.

Sokolove goes to the physiology department at the University of Pennsylvania, where he meets up with mice for which gene therapy has allowed them to produce increased levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), a protein that promotes muscle growth and repair.

"I had heard about these mice, heard them called `mighty mice,' but I was still shocked at the sight of them," Sokolove writes.

"There they were in several small cages, grouped with normal mice, all of them nibbling on mouse chow pellets. The mighty mice looked like a different animal. They were built like cattle, with thick necks and big haunches. They belonged in some kind of mouse rodeo," he writes.

"Rats altered in the same fashion and then put into physical training - they climb little ladders with weights strapped to their backs - have experienced a 35 percent strength gain in the targeted muscles and have not lost any of it `detraining,' as a human being will when he quits going to the gym."

It's not far-fetched to consider that soon these techniques will be available to any athlete desperate enough to seek the ultimate edge.

"Lee Sweeney [physiology department chair at Penn] generously consults with [World Anti-Doping Agency] and other anti-doping officials. He's sympathetic to their cause. He just says it's hopeless. `There will come a day when they just have to give up,' he says. `It's maybe 20 years away, but it's coming,'" Sokolove writes.

Bonds may be approaching home run marks set by Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron on a 40-year-old body enhanced by nothing more than magnesium and zinc. That doesn't mean we don't find our pleasure in watching home run record assaults diminished or our suspicions raised.

Sadly, it takes the issue of steroid abuse among pro athletes to unify politicians. What does that say about the state of sports?

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