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August 4, 2006

Shades of Grey

First, the bad news: That whole breast business from the previous post wasn't really the main theme of this series - it was just an analogy to illustrate the point I was trying to make. But apparently the breast speculation was much more enticing than the discussion about doping, so I've made a mental note that the topic of celebrity breast augmentation could be further explored in this space at some point down the road. After all, this is a full service blog.

However, if you've come back today looking for more boob refernces, I'll save you some time and tell you there aren't any in this post. But I do mention Dutch hookers and shrunken testicles. Intrigued? Then read on to Part 2...

Q: Can’t we just ban all performance enhancing drugs?

A: This is the primary reason why I’ve never had strong feelings against the use of performance enhancing drugs: because it’s impossible to draw a consistent line between what substances should be legal and what shouldn’t be.

We have three major professional sports leagues in America (no, I don't count hockey anymore) along with the NCAA for collegiate athletics, and none of those four organizations have the same list of banned substances. If you're a 19-year-old playing single A baseball, you have a different list than a 19-year-old playing baseball for his college team.

If we're considering Olympic or international sports, who decides what is legal? The host country of the event? What if there is a track meet in Amsterdam – can athletes load up on ecstasy before the event and solicit a prostitute afterwards without any legal repercussions? (And in that case, what’s more dangerous to the athlete’s health – temporarily heightened sensation with sleep alteration, or an STD from the local brothel?)

For American sports, do we just ban drugs that are illegal? Then the government would have to keep up with rapidly changing, highly creative laboratories. That technology gap I mentioned yesterday would come into play again – except in this case, the guys with the slide rules and graph paper also have to deal with bureaucratic red tape and institutional inertia to implement any changes. The bad guys will always be light years ahead of the game. As soon as the Feds outlaw one group of drugs (like anabolic steroids), athletes can turn to something else that isn’t regulated (like HGH).

Plus, some of the most potent drugs are perfectly legal. For instance, EPO is a common blood-boosting medication provided to many cancer patients. Modafinil is the main ingredient in prescription anti-narcolepsy medication. And it’s certainly not against the law to own testosterone-boosting pills – in fact, there is a billion-dollar industry built around it, as testosterone is the primary ingredient in the rapidly developing field of “female vitality” (think Viagra for women) medications. Talk about enhancing performance.

So legality can’t be our litmus test. Do we ban drugs that are harmful? That becomes a personal liberty issue, just like alcohol prohibition in the early 1900s. If someone wants to destroy his kidneys, shrivel his nuts, lose his hair, and have a back full of acne while experiencing constant rage and paranoia, that’s his Constitutional right (if not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind). Major league baseball didn’t care that Mickey Mantle drank himself to an untimely death, and effectively looked the other way during the cocaine epidemic in that was rampant in the sport in the late 1980s.

Besides, it’s possible for any high school kid to walk into his neighborhood GNC store or surf the Internet and stock up on hundreds of products that are just as harmful as steroids over the long term. Think about Mark McGwire and androstenedione – Big Mac is pretty much considered a villain now, but that particular product was available over-the-counter at the time he used it. The farthest he had to travel for his juice was the local shopping center. If these drugs are so hazardous, how come they are easier for a teenager to buy than a pack of cigarettes or some sleazy skin magazine? Should players be punished for using a supplement they bought at the mall?

Finally, who determines what drugs are performance enhancing? Andro has since been put on the banned list – but what about creatine? Or Sudafed? Or the painkillers that many runners pop like candy? (Remember the commercial where a woman made it to the finish line of a 5K only because of all the Alleve she took? She even handed them out to other runners during the race. Could they make a similar commercial like that today with a bunch of women injecting testosterone into each other's backsides? I promise not to skip through that one on my TiVo.) How about caffeine pills or antacid tablets? All of those products provide a clear performance benefit, but are harmful if taken in high doses over a long period of time. How many of you ultra runners out there would like to have your Tylenol, NoDoz or Tums prohibited during your next 100-miler?

I once ran the Boston Marathon while suffering from a hellacious bout of the flu. If it wasn’t for the megadoses of Sudafed and Advil I took before and during the race, there’s no way I would have finished (or even started, for that matter). If the USOC had taken a urine sample afterwards, I would have failed, because most cold medications are on the banned substance list. While I obviously wasn’t trying to win the race, I definitely benefited from the performance enhancing properties of those meds. (Um...nobody from the BAA reads this, right? Because there’s no way I’m giving my medal back.)

To further complicate things, why are we merely focused on things that go into our bodies? What about all of the equipment changes that have revolutionized nearly every sport? Is it safe - for the server or the recipient - to swing a racket that sends a tennis ball 130 mph? If you are a blood doper riding a bike that is capable of going downhill at 80mph, are you more likely to suffer from kidney failure, or a career-ending spinal injury in a crash?

How about oxygen-deprivation tents that can boost someone’s red blood cell count over a period of months, just as effectively as blood doping? Why is doping wrong but living in a $30,000 high-elevation tent acceptable? At that point, we’re merely splitting hairs based on the method of blood cell production.

The point I’m making (over and over) is that banning various substances is a very slippery slope, without much consistency or logic driving it. You can’t simply have a blanket zero-tolerance policy. Even assuming - which we can’t - that these drugs could consistently be detected, there will never be agreement on where to draw the line.

As for this post, I’m drawing the line here. To be continued next time.

14 comments:

Anonymous,  8/4/06, 11:07 AM  

I think you make a lot of good points, Donald. I am still left with this question, though...in my life, I cannot claim ignorance when breaking the rules...even if the rules seem arbitrary, confusing, unfair, whatever. I get very annoyed when ath-a-letes do this, "how could i have known...i can't keep up with it!?!" sorry, that doesn't fly in the real world...if i break a rule of law, it doesn't matter if i knew the law existed or not...guess what, i am still busted.

if you want to compete on this level, then it should be your responsibility to know the rules, evne if they are stupid rules...rules are rules. i still think you are making very compelling arguments as to the validity of the rules. i am just a firm believer in athletes not being able to cop out because of how confusing the rules can be for them. perhaps you are right, these messes arise because of their handlers screwed up...if you can't do the job yourself, then get people on board that can follow the rules for you.

bottom line...no excuses, stupid rules or not!

just my opinion...and still open to be swayed, larry.
thanks for your excellent discussion!

- thousand oaks

backofpack 8/4/06, 11:09 AM  

Donald, you make some very good points. Maybe they'd want to ban my tofu jerky, because the protein it provides makes me stronger. Or my Doves because the chocolate settles my soul. Or my heart medication that allows my blood to flow through the valve more easily and lowers my blood pressure. You never know, it might allow me to move from the back of the back of the pack to the middle of the back of the pack. Who knows?

And by the way, googling images of Teri Hatcher caused a mild shock to this innocent!

Anne 8/4/06, 6:37 PM  

I've often wondered the same thing about the whole GNC phenomenon. I see kids in there all the time buying questionable powders and pills without really understanding the long-term effects -- nor being warned by the people profiting from the purchase.

Every time you create a new law (or, in this case, drug ban) you create a new group of lawbreakers. Athletes will be forced to become recluses who won't dare drink or eat in bars, restaurants or even Starbucks for fear of what may be in the ingredients. They won't trust anyone that bears gifts either. Add the fact that caffeine eventually will be banned, and you've got a class of people that we'll all watch -- from a distance. Everyone knows what happens when someone misses their morning coffee.

jeanne 8/5/06, 5:38 PM  

Tums?? TUMS?? Tums is a performance enhancer?? Sorry annonymous, I truly didn't know this one! and btw, it ain't doing a thing for my performance. :(
Great discussion. I still think Floyd is innocent. Based on the fact that I like him.

Mike 8/5/06, 10:32 PM  

Excellent points Donald...yeah this whole
PED controversy is nuts. Not sure if you heard but they are now talking of banning high-alt tents ....although, how are they going to monitor that!?!

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