Cheating athletes and the fans who love them.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Dec. 10 2004 12:03 PM

Cheating Athletes

Who dopes, why they dope, and who it hurts.

(Continued from Page 1)

So, why do athletes cheat? In most cases, surprisingly, it's not for fame and money. Some cheat to win, but most do it just to survive in their sport. Bonds and Jason Giambi are regular All-Stars, but if the late Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League MVP, is to be believed, and nearly half of baseball players are using steroids, well, many of them are just doing it to pay the bills, not break records. They are turning themselves from triple-A .240 hitters into major-league .260 hitters. For these athletes, doping is almost a rite of passage, marking the moment when a childhood passion became a clock-punching routine. "The moment you dope you become 10 times more professional," said the busted British cyclist David Millar. "You say, 'This is no longer sport, this is my job.' "

Who are the cheaters? Again, by and large they are not the dominant figures in their sports; they're the the wanna-bes, the almost-weres, and a fair number of has-beens. Indeed, even the 40-year-old Bonds might well have retired by now, far short of Hank Aaron's career home run record. In cycling, at least, there are indications that the most rampant cheating takes place in the amateur ranks, where riders are desperate to make the pros. In the past few years, literally dozens of European amateurs have dropped dead from suspicious causes, some as young as 20 years old.

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Does cheating always work? Even Bonds complained that the mystery medicines he took weren't "working," whatever it was that he expected them to do; but at 700-plus HRs and counting, he doth protest too much. Even so, doping can hurt as much as help an athlete. Just ask Giambi, who had a miserable 2004 season, batting well below his .302 lifetime average. In August, he came down with a mystery illness that turned out to be a pituitary-gland tumor—a known side effect of (surprise!) the steroids he admitted taking. (On the other hand, his enhanced performances had already won him a $120 million * contract with the Yankees.) Doping can go much more seriously awry: In the 2003 Tour de France, Spanish cyclist Jesus Manzano collapsed by the roadside, deathly ill because of (as he later admitted) a bad blood transfusion. He went on to detail a laundry list of drugs, from testosterone to Prozac, that he said he'd been forced to take by his team. Yet with all that help, he still never rode very well.

How do they justify it? Most don't, of course. Denial is ever popular, even for those like Bonds whose drug use has been confirmed. "Why can't I just be good?" he asked, setting a new major-league record for disingenuousness. Still, he's more imaginative than Marion Jones, who counters the say-so of her ex-husband (banned shot-putter C.J. Hunter), the drug suspension of her boyfriend Tim Montgomery, and the testimony of BALCO head Victor Conte, who said he'd seen Jones get injections of EPO, with the lamest doper's excuse of all: She's never tested positive.

But testing positive doesn't mean you have to stop denying drug use. Tyler Hamilton has been insisting on his innocence so forcefully—despite multiple positive tests, and the positive test of a teammate for the same thing, and yet a third teammate's suspension for EPO—that you almost believe him. Nobody could lie that hard, right?

Another common excuse is that "everybody does it." The sprinter Kelli White, another BALCO client, says she only started using drugs after a rival began using them—and beating her. To beat them, you have to join them.

A third option is to claim that you would have won anyway, without using drugs. David Millar won the world time-trial championship in 2003 while on EPO and was later caught red-handed, when French police found the empty vials in his apartment. "It was so hard to explain," he mused in an interview, "because I was capable of winning big races clean."

Who are the victims of cheating? Not the fans—they love it! Bigger hits, faster races, new records. Until an athlete gets caught, that is, which is why Bonds was booed at the World Series this year, when he was collecting an award. Unlike most sports cheaters, who tend to be needy approval-seekers, he seemed not to mind. But the cloud over his achievements could well turn into an asterisk beside his name in the record books—and he'll have nobody to blame but himself.

Don't cry for him, though, but for the unheralded, probably underpaid, but clean .280 hitters out there. If there are any. Better yet, cry for the likes of 25-year-old Australian cyclist Michael Rogers, who finished second in the world championships to David Millar, and fourth in the Olympic time trial won by Tyler Hamilton. In both races, Rogers got what's known as the "dick spot," the highest meaningless placing.

And finally, will drug testing save baseball? Short answer: only if baseball wants to be saved, and all parties agree to a rigorous program of random testing, with consequences for cheaters. One could argue that the cheaters will always be ahead of the testers, but in cycling, that gap has been closing fast, as Tyler Hamilton learned. There are inaccurate tests and false positives, too—and Hamilton might possibly be innocent. The police in France and Italy can be pretty heavy-handed, as well, breaking down skinny cyclists' doors, with guns drawn. But there is now a reliable test for EPO, which there wasn't five years ago. In another five years, there may be a test for human growth hormone, which remains undetectable.

For all its imperfections, drug testing has created and enforced something like the rule of law in cycling. Cheating hasn't gone away, and probably never will, but it's clear what the rules are, and there is at least a possibility of getting caught—unlike in baseball, which tests a handful of players only once a year and threatens no serious sanctions. If a cyclist tests positive even once, he's almost certain to be suspended and "Whatever, dude" is not a defense. Baseball players get sent to treatment for a first offense. Baseball's current approach, in fact, amounts to de facto legalization, which hurts both the users and the clean athletes alike. (I suggested legalization, with disclosure, in this 2000 Slate piece.)

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