BALCO Blues (Or, Real Winners Do Use Drugs)


The sports scandal involving the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) continues to grow: Not only has former Oakland A's (and current New Yawk Yankees) slugger Jason Giambi copped to using steroids, the lab's founder has said that track superstar Marion Jones juiced. And the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds has copped to unwittingly (so he claims) using steroids.

Story and more here.

Back in our January 2003 issue, Dayn Perry took a look at the media' 'roid rage and suggested:

A more objective survey of steroids' role in sports shows that their health risks, while real, have been grossly exaggerated; that the political response to steroids has been driven more by a moral panic over drug use than by the actual effects of the chemicals; and that the worst problems associated with steroids result from their black-market status rather than their inherent qualities. As for baseball's competitive integrity, steroids pose no greater threat than did other historically contingent "enhancements," ranging from batting helmets to the color line. It is possible, in fact, that many players who use steroids are not noticeably improving their performance as a result.

Whole story here.

It remains something of a mystery to me why performance-enhancing drugs remain such a bugaboo in so many professional sports. There might be certain health risks involved (such as 'roids allowing football players to bulk up to a point where they are more prone to injuring themselves and others), but the fact is that top-level sports have always sacrificed the bodies of athletes (go ask Mickey Mantle or Mark Fidrych). And athletes have certainly always taken a lead in destroying themselves for the glory of their game, whatever it might be.

The main argument against "performance enhancers" (and Dayn Perry's story above strongly suggests that drugs, stripped of very particular training programs, rarely deliver the way most people assume) is that they somehow cheapen competition and/or the accomplishments of athletes. But drugs are only one way of many that competitors seek to edge out their rivals (and let's face it, they are mostly available to all). The same can be said of secret (or newly developed) training and coaching regimens, new techniques, diets, etc. Not to mention raw athletic ability. Any of these can confer as much "unfair" advantage as a drug so if a level playing field is important, all of these should be targeted for opprobrium too.

I think athletes (and trainers and coaches) who contravene drug policies in their chosen sports should be punished–they accepted certain rules as a condition of competition.

But I suspect that much of the anxiety and loathing of drugs in particular stems from a deeply seated anxiety about the ways in which people seek to remake themselves. You can sense the same thing when people argue that changing a mental state via meditation, say, is preferable to using a drug. One way is seen as organic and natural and hence good; the other somehow synthetic and easy and hence fraudulent. That's an assumption that is less convincing the more it's considered, I think, partly because it's based on a false dichotomy between natural and artificial. Spending all day weightlifting and training and eating certain meals is natural; spending part of the day training and taking more targeted nutrients and substances is not.