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August 3, 2006

Suspicious Mind

Imagine me sitting here wearing suspenders and giant eyeglasses, speaking in a raspy voice – I’m in Larry King mode.

Me: Thousand Oaks, hello. What’s your question?

Thousand Oaks: I was wondering what your take is on the whole drug situation in sports.

Me: Oy vey. Pull up a chair.


I’ve been terribly reluctant to tackle the whole drug issue, for a few reasons:

1. It’s simply exhausting in scope. Asking someone to address the drug issue is like asking Anderson Cooper “So how are things in the South since Hurricane Katrina?” It’s just an enormous story that constantly evolves from one week to the next, with countless angles and thousands more stories than can ever be told.

2. Far better writers have written much more eloquently about this issue in magazines and Internet columns. Believe me - there are a lot of sportswriters I admire, and nearly every one of them has analyzed the drug issue from one aspect or another. In other words, if you want to read drug stories, you can probably find 10,000 good ones from Google in about 0.034 seconds.

3. On many levels, I don’t know how I feel about using performance enhancing drugs. It’s fashionable to take a moral stand against them, but the boundaries can become very blurred. I think equally good arguments can be made either way.

Honestly, I planned on staying out of the whole mess. But then Floyd Landis happened. And Justin Gatlin happened. And it just felt like a good time to say something.

So I started typing. And typing. Before I looked up, I had 1500 words down. And I was just getting rolling.

Now instead of one post, this is going to be a series – maybe three, maybe five, who knows. (I reserve the right to interrupt the series if any Beyonce-related musings spring to mind. You know how this blog works.) There’s no way I’ll cover every facet of the issue here, but hopefully I’ll put some observations on the table and highlight a point you hadn’t considered before.

Here’s the format I’ll use: Each post will start with a common question, after which I’ll discuss why the answers aren’t as obvious as you’d think. If you want to post follow-up questions here, feel free to do so – that could easily lead to another post.

Enough preamble. Like the Black-Eyed Peas say, Leeeeeet’s get it started!

Q: How many top athletes use drugs?

A: There’s no way of knowing. My runner friends and I often speculate about which athletes are “using” in the same manner that college guys muse about which actresses have fake breasts. For every case that is overwhelmingly certain (like Barry Bonds or Pamela Anderson), there are scores of people who appear enhanced but may just be naturally gifted (Lance Armstrong, Lindsay Lohan, Deena Kastor, Tyra Banks, Bernard Lagat, Courtney Cox…I could go on and on. In fact, this could be a whole separate post, comparing famous athletes to famous breasts. I’m filing that thought away for later.)

Unfortunately, there will NEVER be any way of knowing for sure which athletes are using drugs. If you think Hollywood plastic surgeons are secretive, try uncovering information on a BALCO-type lab (there are probably hundreds out there) without any tips to help you.

Rigorous testing doesn’t clarify the matter. Sure, Marion Jones can say she’s never tested positive, but anyone with basic laboratory knowledge understands what a low threshold that is. For every drug that can be specifically tested, there are probably ten other drugs that can mask the presence of that first drug. The technology gap is enormous – the testers are like a handful of guys with slide rules and graph paper trying to keep pace with Microsoft and Intel.

So clean test results are pretty much useless. On the other hand, what else can an athlete do besides take test after test after test and pass them all? In Every Second Counts, Lance Armstrong describes in painstaking detail how the testers knock on his door at all hours of the day and night, any day of the year. He’s the most frequently drug-tested athlete ever, and he’s never tested positive. Why shouldn’t we believe him?

The main reason guys like Landis and Gatlin get caught is because they or their “handlers” do something foolish, like getting greedy or forgetting to cover their tracks. It doesn’t mean they are they only guys out there using – it just means they were the only ones who screwed up enough to get caught.

Let me put it this way: among high-profile professional athletes, there is nobody – NOBODY – whose name I would be surprised to hear as a drug user. Especially with runners. Any sprinter or distance runner at the world-class level could be Demi Moore (fake, but impressive) or Teri Hatcher (real, and spectacular). Cyclists and triathletes are fair game, too. To think otherwise is simply ignorant.

It’s just part of the landscape of sports now: if you are the best at something, or if you do something unexpected, you automatically come under suspicion.

And we’ll leave it at that for today. Look for Part 2 tomorrow.

8 comments:

backofpack 8/3/06, 1:11 PM  

Honestly? The first question that pops into my mind is: Demi? Teri? How do you KNOW? I mean, really. I've been accused of being naive and clueless in regards to things like this, but I just wonder. Don't all celebrities deny plastic surgery, or for that matter drug and alcohol use?

I can tell this is going to be one fun and interesting series, and that it's going to challenge my small-town-girl innocence. Bring it on Donald!

stronger 8/3/06, 1:15 PM  

I think you just wanted to talk about boobs and the drug issue was a clever disguise.

Robb 8/3/06, 3:46 PM  

One things for certain Donald...you are clearly a breast man.

angie's pink fuzzy 8/3/06, 7:25 PM  

courtney cox = fake. ever seen how small she was in the first season of friends?

teri hatcher = looked much more impressive before she lost so much weight that she became a skeleton.

angie = waaay to judgmental

robtherunner 8/3/06, 9:06 PM  

Thanks for adding women's breasts into the equation. I was just going to ignore the whole sports and drug use issue, but if you're going to lay it out for us like this then count me in.

Thomas 8/4/06, 1:42 AM  

I've never looked at it from the breast angle, but I have to admit I'm intrigued. One thing is sure, all those drug stories made me completely lose interest in some sports, e.g cycling (I haven't lost interest in breasts, though).

Btw, we already have a minivan. We bought a 7-seater half a year ago, which is no small way responsible of my constant state of being broke.

Cliff 8/4/06, 7:20 AM  

Hmmm of breast and doping....:)

Looking forward for the next post.

Anonymous,  8/4/06, 9:02 AM  

larry, this is what i was hoping for when i called in to your show...i am anxious to hear why you think it is merely fashionable to take a stand against doping. i wonder if there are a fair number that can't stand rule-breakers in sports...especially when the rules are clearly laid out for you before you choose to break them.

anyway, i remaining open on this and appreciate your insight. i look forward to your series of posts.

thanks again for taking my call.

- thousand oaks

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