Dealing With Doping

Despite increased testing and harsher penalties, athletes' ambitions will make it difficult to rid sports of performance-enhancing drugs


Kornelia Ender was quite a swimmer in the 1972 Summer Olympics, winning three silver medals for East Germany as a scrawny 13-year-old.

Four years later in Montreal, Ender strode to the pool with the same slim waist but with the shoulders and upper arms of a wrestler. She swam four events, won four gold medals and set four world records.

Little did the world know it was receiving its introduction to a saga that carries on today and that, if you ask the experts, may never end.

Ender admitted 15 years later that East German officials had pumped her full of unidentified drugs, causing her to gain 18 pounds of muscle in the run-up to the Games. Around the same time in 1991, former NFL lineman Lyle Alzado lay withering and dying from a brain tumor, the first suspected casualty of that league's doping outbreak.

Seven years later, a reporter noted a bottle labeled androstenedione in the locker of mammoth slugger Mark McGwire, who stood a few home runs short of eclipsing Roger Maris' 37-year-old season record.

So began baseball's steroid song, which hit another low note this week with the release of a book excerpt detailing Barry Bonds' alleged heavy use of performance enhancers. Also this week, Dr. James Shortt, physician to several Carolina Panthers, pleaded guilty to federal steroid charges.

Thirty years have passed since Montreal. Steroids have become illegal in the United States, and the governing bodies of most Olympic and pro sports have widened testing policies and toughened penalties. But the sense that doping is somehow intrinsic to athletes' lust for self-improvement is stronger than ever.

"In the world of high-stakes professional sports, you have to assume the incentives make doping irresistible," said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who has studied the subject since the 1980s. "To assume otherwise is to assume the whole mentality of athletic subcultures can change overnight. Twenty years has taught me to expect otherwise."

The audience may show outrage at Bonds but shows few signs of wanting deeper change, said Dr. William Howard, a specialist in sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital.

"The public has gotten used to these cartoon characters, coming out with 18-inch biceps like the Incredible Hulk," he said. "And people like it. They don't want to go back to the 1950s."

Widespread problem

According to Game of Shadows, the forthcoming book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, Bonds grew incensed that his all-around game ceased to be the talk of baseball as McGwire and Sammy Sosa launched their home run chase.

So the multimillionaire began ingesting the anabolic steroid Winstrol, the book says. He later allegedly expanded his regimen to include human growth hormone and designer drugs from the infamous BALCO laboratory.

The results were stunning. Bonds' already impressive home run rate doubled.

His experience echoed those of Olympians like Ender and Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who suddenly went from good to the best ever before being busted in 1988.

With his often surly demeanor, Bonds makes an easy villain.

But American fans make a mistake by believing steroid users are the few bad apples in the barrel, Hoberman said, when the reality may be that many or most elite athletes will do anything to get bigger, stronger and faster. That hasn't changed since 1976 and probably won't, he said.

"The big picture," Hoberman said, "is one in which there are substantial populations of highly motivated athletes for whom self-restraint on ethical grounds is simply not a priority."

Europeans seem to have already reached this conclusion about their beloved cyclists. They start with the assumption that elite riders will dope if they can get away with it. That's why they found America's unclouded love for Lance Armstrong so ludicrous, wrote Daniel Coyle in his book Lance Armstrong's War.

The calculations are simple and consistent, doping experts say. Excellent athletes tend to be incredibly competitive by nature and see that drugs will help them win. That's the No. 1 reason to use. Greatness in the Olympics or in the pros leads to fame and riches that most couldn't achieve in other fields. That's the No. 2 reason.

Athletes are taught to reach for an edge in every situation, and that switch can't simply be turned off when drugs come into play, Hoberman said.

"They're asked to be really ruthless on the one hand and to be supremely self-contained on the other," he said. "It's an impossible situation and one way to understand why this is not going to go away."

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