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."

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.)

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.

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.)

There is a downside to testing, of course. Cycling has been in a state of constant scandal since 1998, and it's not clear that it will survive. In its year-end wrap-up, the magazine VeloNews dubbed 2004 the "Year of the Cheat." But that's only half right: It was the year that the cheats got caught, in stunning numbers. And some of them, refreshingly, had the good grace to come clean, à la Nina Kraft, the good German triathlete. Even David Millar, who was stripped of his world title and suspended for two years, seemed relieved to have been caught.

"I have a good lawyer in Paris and I might have got away with it," he said. "But I thought, 'Fuck this. I can't live with this.' "

Corre ction, Dec. 13, 2004: This article originally stated that Jason Giambi's enhanced performance had won him an $82 million contract with the New York Yankees. The full seven-year contract was for $120 million, $38 million of which has already been paid to Giambi. (Return to corrected sentence.)

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