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.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

By any measure, it was a solid victory: When Nina Kraft crossed the finish line of the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, on Oct. 16, her nearest competitor was more than 2 miles behind. But instead of feeling triumphant, Kraft was sheepish. She hung her head and barely looked up at the cheering spectators. A few weeks later, she got the letter, confirming her positive test for recombinant erythropoietin, or EPO, which boosts endurance.

"I screwed up," she told the press in her native Germany, which takes triathlon very seriously. "I never really rejoiced over the victory in Hawaii. I was ashamed the entire time, especially in front of my family. I cheated."

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It's difficult to imagine Barry Bonds ever making such a statement, even a year or two from now, when the BALCO steroids case has reached its ugly denouement. But what does he feel, as he watches homer after homer sail over the fence?

He denies cheating, of course. He's never tested positive (publicly) for anything on Major League Baseball's short list of banned substances—perhaps because baseball, whose rules are more permissive than a cheap Vegas strip joint, didn't test athletes until 2003. One of the illegal steroids he's alleged to have used, THG, wasn't even banned by MLB until last March. (If he was still using it then, with the BALCO grand jury in full cry, then he should be locked in a padded cell.)

Bonds told the grand jury that he just didn't know what was in those potions—a clear liquid nutritional supplement and a topical cream—that his trainer and best friend gave him. Flaxseed oil and arthritis medicine? "Whatever, dude," he said he told the trainer.

On the other hand, the finicky Bonds certainly must have wondered why he gained 35 pounds and went from fewer than 50 to more than 70 home runs a year, even though he was in his late 30s, a time when athletes' powers typically drop like half-full beer cans tossed from the upper deck.

The public outrage over Bonds' case plus the thunder of Sen. John McCain and the White House have pushed baseball's all-powerful players' union to a grudging acceptance of something like doping enforcement: regular, random testing and actual penalties for offenders.

But will drug testing stop cheating? For answers, let us turn to the sport of cycling, which has a robust history of cheating—going all the way back to the first winner of the Tour de France, who did some of his best riding on trains. Cycling has imposed drug testing since the 1960s, when the English rider Tom Simpson got so hopped-up on speed (and cognac) that he keeled over and died during a Tour stage. Over the years, the sport has accumulated a rich database of cheats, who range from the lowly and anonymous to some of the best in the sport. Just this year, in fact, four current and former world champions in cycling tested positive or admitted to doping.

Cycling and baseball have more in common than you might think. Both sports put their athletes through absurdly grueling seasons, 162 games for major-leaguers, and more than 100 days of racing over eight months for most pro cyclists. While both cycling and baseball are team sports, both also prize individual performances and records. Finally, both sports are phenomenally difficult, with physical demands (timing, strength, and coordination in baseball, sheer speed and endurance in cycling) not required of, say, NASCAR drivers. In other words, both cyclists and ballplayers have much to gain from taking steroids and other performance-boosting substances.

Cycling even has its own Barry Bonds, in the person of American star Tyler Hamilton, whose Athens gold medal carries a giant question mark thanks to a positive test for an illegal blood transfusion—an old-fashioned doping technique that seems to have come back into vogue, ironically, because of more sophisticated tests for EPO, the endurance athlete's drug of choice. Hamilton is keeping his gold medal, thanks to a botched testing protocol, but he faces sanctions for a second positive test during the Tour of Spain. Like Bonds, Hamilton insists that he's innocent despite a steaming mound of evidence to the contrary. (Unlike Bonds, however, Hamilton is widely regarded as a nice guy, which is why many in cycling continue to believe him.)

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