I’m writing this on steroids. Prednisone, to be specific, taken to relieve a back spasm that was pinching a nerve.
That was five or six weeks ago, but I’m sure there are residual traces that will show up if anyone insists that I be drug-tested on the suspicion that nobody could possibly write this well without the help of performance enhancing drugs.
As career-destroying mistakes go, this one is fairly minor since career destruction happens to be my chosen vocation. Writers need something to write about.
For athletes, no such cavalier choice is available.
Two years ago, the World Anti-Doping Agency (Agence Mondiale Antidopage, as they call it, amid snickering, around the Tour de France) convened a research study to determine the scope of the blood doping problem in sports. That’s right, 2011.
From the mid 1960s through the 1980s, East Germany was an Olympic powerhouse with an entire team on anabolic steroids. That was obvious, and in the mid 70s, defectors from East Germany filled in the details. One long distance skier said promising young skiers got knee injections starting at age 14.
“For every Olympic champion,” he said, “there are 350 invalids.”
In 1985, Ben Johnson finally beat Carl Lewis in the 100-meter sprint, then was disqualified for steroids. From at least the mid 90s, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, and onward to A-Rod were setting home run records with the obvious aid of drugs. A scrawny guy would turn into the Incredible Hulk, and officials looked the other way because the home runs were worth billions in attendance, TV rights, and merchandise. Oh, and Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times.
These are a scant few among many thousands of examples. Still, it somehow presented a real puzzler in the feathered nests of the World Anti-Doping Agency and its predecessors, who for some reason needed 45 years even to decide there might be a problem here worth researching.
The scientists they enlisted for the task proved more resourceful than the agency could have anticipated. They mounted a definitive study that blood-tested 2,000 track and field athletes from the Pan American Games and the World Championship, then questioned them in a survey, promising anonymity.
Fewer than 2% tested positive. But 45% of those in the Pan Am Games admitted they had doped within the past 12 months.
You can probably assume that means at least 90%. If you were being asked to admit taking drugs, would you trust the promise of confidentiality? Neither would I.
They all know – their coaches, their agents, their teammates have all told them — If anonymity is what you’re after, all you have to do is refrain from doping, and nobody will ever hear of you because you’ll never be a contender.
So. Now that Anti-Doping Agency officials have the facts, what do they plan to do? Nothing, really.
They told the researchers not to publish the results. They say they might want to think about doing additional, “more comprehensive” research. Apparently 45 years of study is not enough, and Track and Field’s governing body, the IAAF, agrees. They want to wait and maybe combine the 2011 study with blood tests from the upcoming world championships in Moscow. Blood tests – you know — the kind that got 2% positives from athletes who admitted a 45% rate of doping.
Lance Armstrong doped and beat 200 other doped-up riders seven times. If Lance and everyone else had raced drug-free, chances are he still would have won the Tour seven times.
Quel horreur! An American!
Clearly, the perpetrators of the doping problem are not the athletes but the governing bodies and their vast network of commercial funders and sponsors and broadcasters and advertisers. Their salaries and self importance are ample, their lucrative game is rigged, and they can always throw a few diversionary human sacrifices into the circus to lull the public and the media by penalizing a handful of unlucky scapegoats – violators, to be sure, but also victims of the system, along with the thousands of kids and young adults who have had their health compromised and their lives shortened by the effects of drugs.
The Economist recently described an analysis of the doping problem using a branch of mathematics called Game Theory.
In its most famous game – Prisoner’s Dilemma – the participant finds that it would be extremely stupid to be honorable.
The bike racer or football player faces a comparable dilemma. If you dope and don’t get caught, you may become rich and famous. If you dope and do get caught (the 2%), you may be suspended or banned. If you don’t dope at all, you can’t keep up with the people who do, and you’re off the team – which is the same penalty you would suffer if you had doped and got caught. So where’s the disincentive?
Game theory suggests that the only way out of this tail-chase is to test everybody and to publish all the results.
The mathematicians didn’t say – but I think common sense does – that since the dopers have always stayed two steps ahead of the testers, all test samples would have to be saved to await retesting with improved technology. Cheaters would be caught, either now or later. All awards would be considered provisional for a five or seven year validation cycle.
For the first time in half a century, the rational athlete or team owner or manager would realize (most of them happily) that crime doesn’t pay.
As The Economist concludes,
“… the real guilty parties in sports doping are not those who actually take the drugs, but those who create a situation where only a fool would not.”