If steroids are cheating, why isn't LASIK?

Science, technology, and life.
April 18 2005 12:36 AM

The Beam in Your Eye

If steroids are cheating, why isn't LASIK?

Illustration by Mark Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

A month ago, Mark McGwire was hauled before a congressional hearing and lambasted as a cheater for using a legal, performance-enhancing steroid precursor when he broke baseball's single-season home run record.

A week ago, Tiger Woods was celebrated for winning golf's biggest tournament, the Masters, with the help of superior vision he acquired through laser surgery.

What's the difference?

At the steroid hearing on March 17, numerous members of the House Committee on Government Reform, led by Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., denounced performance-enhancing drugs. They offered three arguments: The drugs are illegal, they're harmful, and they're cheating. But illegality doesn't explain why a drug should be illegal, and the steroid precursor McGwire took, andro, was legal at the time. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse conceded at the hearing that steroid precursors weren't banned until last year, that steroids "do, in fact, enhance certain types of physical performance," that some are "prescribed to treat body wasting in patients with AIDS and other diseases that result in loss of lean muscle mass," and that "not all anabolic steroid abusers experience the same deleterious outcomes."

Don't get me wrong. If you buy a steroid off the street or the Internet today just to bulk up, you're taking a stupid risk. But much of that risk comes from your ignorance and the dubious grade of steroid you're getting. A star player with access to the best stuff and the best medical supervision isn't taking the same degree of risk. Furthermore, steroids are a crude, early phase of enhancement technology. Chemists are trying every day to refine compounds and doses that might help pro athletes without bad side effects.

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Already the medical objection to doping has holes. At the hearing, lawmakers displayed a supposedly damning list of "Performance Enhancing Substances Not Covered by Baseball's New Testing Program." The first item on the list was human growth hormone. But the Food and Drug Administration has approved human growth hormone for use in short, healthy children based on studies showing its safety and efficacy. The National Institutes of Health says it's "generally considered to be safe, with rare side effects" in children, and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists has found the same pattern in adults.

That leaves one comprehensive complaint: cheating. At the hearing, I heard six lawmakers apply this term to performance-enhancing drugs. They compared the drugs to corking bats, deadening baseballs, and sharpening spikes. "When I played with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn't put on 40 pounds of bulk in their careers, and they didn't hit more homers in their late thirties than they did in their late twenties," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. "What's happening now in baseball isn't natural, and it isn't right." Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of the House subcommittee on drug policy, recalled that baseball had harshly punished players who threw games. He asked why such punishment didn't apply to "players today who systematically cheat through steroids and performance-enhancing drugs to alter the games." Davis, who presided at the hearing, announced that he would co-chair "Zero Tolerance: The Advisory Committee on Ending the Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Sports."

Zero tolerance? Wait a minute. If the andro that helped McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 was an unnatural, game-altering enhancement, what about his high-powered contact lenses? "Natural" vision is 20/20. McGwire's custom-designed lenses improved his vision to 20/10, which means he could see at a distance of 20 feet what a person with normal, healthy vision could see at 10 feet. Think what a difference that makes in hitting a fastball. Imagine how many games those lenses altered.