What's wrong with steroids?

Performance enhancement an ancient tradition


At one time, using coaches was prohibited in Olympic sports. Systematic training was frowned upon. They were thought to be against the spirit of the games.

Now performance-enhancing drugs are prohibited in Olympic and most other sports, essentially for the same reason.

The current spotlight is on Major League Baseball because of the new book Game of Shadows, by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Baseball superstar Barry Bonds is its villainous protagonist.

Last week, spurred by that book, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced an investigation into the past use of steroids in the sport.

Few ask a fundamental question: Does banning such drugs make any more sense than the erstwhile ban on coaching? Certainly Game of Shadows does not ask. Its writing rests on the premise that using these drugs is a bad thing.

But to many who study the field, the answer is not at all clear.

"From what I can tell, athletes have always used this stuff," says Maxwell Mehlman, professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

"So, given the fact that pretty much throughout history athletes have used performance-enhancing substances, the question is, why are we rather suddenly trying to prevent them?" Mehlman asks.

Game of Shadows grew out of reporting by Fainaru-Wada and Williams on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, a laboratory near the San Francisco airport run by former rock musician Victor Conte that became the hub of a far-reaching scheme to provide undetectable, performance-enhancing drugs to a wide variety of athletes.

It is a compelling, fascinating story, a look into the dirty laundry basket of big-time sports. Although Bonds' name is used to sell the book, he is just one of a large cast of characters who took advantage of Conte's expertise, mostly track and field competitors.

Indeed, the baseball players come across as amateur gym rats in the drug game compared with the track athletes who came from a sport where years of drug use had produced a much more sophisticated approach.

The only reason the buff bodies of Bonds and his BALCO buddies in baseball - identified in Game of Shadows as including Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield - garnered such notice is that their sport was so late to come to the use of these drugs.

In track and field, the history of producing outstanding performances with the help of chemistry may date back "millennia," as Charlie Francis - coach of the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who lost his Olympic gold medal and world 100 meter record to a positive steroid test at the 1988 Games - wrote in his 1991 book, Speed Trap.

"Had [track and field's] banned list [of drugs] been in place in ancient Greece, many an Olympic champion might have lost his laurels for ingesting sheep's testicles - a prime source of testosterone," Francis wrote, going on to point out drugs used to enhance performance in a number of societies throughout history.

Brandy, strychnine, cocaine and such were used by Olympic athletes in the years after the Games were revived in 1896.

The muscle-building anabolic steroids were perfected in the years after World War II. The blood booster EPO was a later arrival. Their efficacy raised the fear that sports would no longer be a battle among athletes, but among chemists.

Yet chemists have always been involved in human performance, analyzing nutrition and the types and amounts of sugars and proteins and vitamins and other nutrients athletes should be ingesting to make their bodies work at their peak efficiency.

It was chemists who determined that training at high altitude boosts the number of red blood cells and thus increases muscular efficiency, and who figured out how to duplicate that by sleeping in tents that create a high-altitude atmosphere. Almost all top athletes in Olympic sports - at least in First World countries - have chemists who monitor the components of their blood to determine the proper training regimen.

The point is that athletes are always following prescribed courses of activities - including putting things into their bodies - as determined by chemists. Why are some chemical manipulations considered acceptable, perhaps even praised as great scientific advances, while these particular chemical substances are banned and denounced as morally repugnant?

"My view is that this is really a matter of taste," Mehlman says. "Lots of people don't like the idea of athletes taking drugs to build up their bodies and improve their performances, but they arbitrarily allow other things.

"Now, there's nothing wrong with sports making arbitrary rules. All rules in sports are pretty arbitrary. But look at what we have to do in order to enforce this one," he says, pointing to the draconian drug testing procedures that every athlete in Olympic sports must agree to. "Is it worth it?"

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