Stripped medals. Congressional hearings. The dreaded asterisk. More so than any single sport or athlete today, the sports world is infatuated with how the use of steroids has infected its ranks. From the homerun records of Bonds, McGuire and Sosa to the Tour de France feats of Lance Armstrong, stories of steroid use, rumored or true, dominate the headlines and cast a shadow over the credibility of today’s athletic achievements. Doping scandals, the media would have you believe, will ultimately bring about the destruction of competitive sports. The truth is quite the opposite.
There is no better example of how steroids have aided, if not saved, professional sports than our own National Pastime – baseball. Following the players strike of 1994, attendance for MLB games was at an all-time low and threatened to bankrupt the sport into oblivion. That was until, in 1998, two players began a well-publicized race to beat one of baseball’s most coveted records – most homeruns in a single season. The excitement over Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa’s battle for the new record revitalized baseball and turned a corner for the sports future a future that would see more homerun records broken, faster pitching and an all-around elevation to the level of play that brought fans back to the park and kept them there for the new-and-improved, more exciting game of baseball.
For a while, baseball fans were happy to see their sport get bigger and more excitingÂ until the news that steroids were the fuel to baseballs new fire. In a testament to the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, baseball is still thriving as a sport, despite the negative press that surrounds its biggest stars and their alleged or proven steroid use. Sports talk radio shows and newspaper columns are filled with comments about who’s on what and what should be done about it. The steroid controversy has created a sports soap opera of heroes and villains, and sports fans are eager to fuel the argument from either side. The overall effect of the controversy surrounding steroid use in baseball? Not much different from the overall effect of steroid use in baseball it makes the sport bigger and more exciting.
To those who adamantly oppose steroids in sports, the new game isn’t just bigger and more exciting it is also unfair. Pointing to the physical advantages of steroid-using athletes, the steroid naysayers make a completely valid point athletes who use steroids force others to use steroids in order to compete. This is true because of one undeniable factÂ steroids work. Steroids allow the body to exceed its genetics and grow to become stronger and larger than normal. Anyone who trains and tries to compete at a natural level would be at a disadvantage if he/she competes with steroid-using athletes. But as pediatrician, medical ethics expert and steroid advocate Dr. Norman Frost said in a recent interview for steroidlaw.com, the answer to the unfair advantage issue with steroids is equal access.
It is not considered immoral to try to gain a competitive advantage, he said. I would put steroids in the long list of things that athletes do to try to win. Better shoes, better equipment, better training, better coaching than the opponent has. If such advantages were not available to all competitors, then the advantage would be unfair.
Equal access to steroids has been a reality for many years and is the very reason why we are now learning about steroid use by so many athletes as the controversy rages on in the media. In a recent NPR sponsored debate over the ethics of steroids in sports, University of Oxford ethics professor Julian Savulescu made the point that performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport, it’s been a part of sport through its whole history, and to be human is to be better, or at least to try to be better.”
Like it or not, the truth is that better athletes are exactly what performance-enhancing drugs have produced. Since the advent of steroids in sports, athletes have run faster, grown stronger, hit further and jumped higher than any other time in sports history. And as a nation of sports consumers, we’ve come to expect our sports heroes to maintain this level of athleticism. Fans are used to ball games with multiple homeruns or bike races that finish in record time or football games with iron curtain front lines. A return to naturally-fit athletes could be very disappointing. Professional sports, like all businesses, compete for the almighty dollar. And when competing against the memory of the days when games would sometimes feature fie to six homeruns, games with only one or two would seem boring and, once again, clear the bleachers of fans as they seek out more exciting sports.
Although fans cheer when they see their heroes outperform themselves on the field, they cringe at the headlines about them suffering from health problems attributed to steroid use. The truth is that although all drugs contain some inherent risk when taken, the health risks of steroid use by athletes as reported in the media are largely exaggerated and in most cases completely unfounded. A 1996 study by the Harbo UCLA Research and Education Institute and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science found that subjects taking 600 mgs of injected testosterone over 10 weeks showed virtually no health differences from the control group, other than increased muscle mass and lowered body fat.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence to back up the claim that steroids cause a major health risk, the media still reports all claims of steroid-related health problems as fact. Take the famous interview with Lyle Alzado, the NFL player who developed a brain tumor and claimed … this is what happens when you use anabolic steroids, says Dr. Frost. Nowhere in the article was there a single reference or scientific source for any connection between steroids and brain tumors – because there is none. These stories appear in the leading journalistic media, creating the false impression that the claims are somehow supported by scientific studies.
Scientific studies aside, steroid use in competitive sports is currently banned, the athletes who get caught using them are ostracized and users and dealers of these drugs can face serious criminal charges. But despite the risk to their careers if they get caught taking performance enhancers, many athletes still do. This is because, just like the fans that cheer them, they are impressed by the results they bring. Unless the ban on steroid use is lifted from professional sports, a dark cloud of doubt will continue to hover over the honesty of our athletes. Perhaps we should, instead have an honest debate over whether adult athletes should be given the right to train their bodies as they see fit in order to bring us fans the best possible performance they can deliver.