Why the Silence? Athletes Need to Speak Out About Sports Doping

FasterSkierMay 2, 2005

It’s common for sports commentators to break down important stats or concepts for the audience. Such as Adam Vinatieri’s field goal percentage from 34 yards into a headwind when it’s snowing during an afternoon away game. Our sporting culture is consumed by an analytical obsession and the purpose of this is not merely trivial. It’s to gain a richer understanding of what’s going on, because sports are more entertaining when they’re meaningful.

It’s been interesting, then, to watch the relatively shallow analysis of the latest doping scandals. Thanks to the stars of the BALCO scandal— Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Marion Jones etc.—doping has been dragged front and center. By now there should be no doubt that doping is an issue in every sport, at almost every level. But what makes doping scandalous? Drugs are bad, right? But why?

Our analysis of this question has been less rigorous. Sure, we’ve studied the pictures of Bonds, who 10 years ago looked more like a middle-distance runner than the 40-year-old bulging machine who has admitted using something called “the clear” supposedly without knowing it’s an illegal steroid. But we haven’t looked much deeper.

Judging the reaction to Bonds, little is clear about why doping is a real threat to sport. So let me break it down.

The most practical argument against doping concerns the health risks. Here’s a statistic that hasn’t gotten much airtime: Eight–the number of elite cyclists who have recently died suddenly from inexplicable heart failures. Cycling officials say these were freak tragedies. That’s quite a coincidence. Especially since most of the drugs popular with endurance athletes do more than improve their endurance. The drugs also dangerously thicken the athlete’s blood. Death is the highest price to pay when you’re willing to win at any cost, but even the lesser side effects of blood boosters and steroids range from inconvenient to horrific. Sadly, because of the shameful, secretive nature of doping, many of the most serious risks are unknown.

I personally don’t like the health risk argument. It’s perfectly valid, of course, but it skirts the real issues at the heart of sports. Plus, the health risks have not proven to be a deterrent. Many athletes say that if they could take a pill that would guarantee they would win an Olympic gold medal or a World Series ring—but they’d die 5 years later—they’d do it.

A good argument for why doping is bad should have something more directly to do with sports. What I find unacceptable about doping is the fraud it perpetuates. When I watch a game or a race it’s with the assumption that I’m watching a clean contest. And it’s not just me. Sponsors pay millions of dollars to be associated with this supposedly pure athleticism. It’s a letdown, then, when I discover drugs are involved.

Do I care if Ben Johnson can cover 100 meters in 9.79 seconds if he’s got to inject something first? No, I don’t. But I’m awe-struck and inspired to see a clean athlete do it in 9.8 seconds. What I’m trying to get at is that it’s not the end that matters as much as the means. Doping is an ethical issue, a scientific issue, and a health issue, but it is foremost a philosophical issue—and it’s this analysis that’s being neglected.

Athletic competition relies on a basic premise: one man’s best against another’s (or one team’s best, etc.). The entire phenomenon of sport rests on this simple idea. When someone cheats, the value of victory becomes worthless. Wouldn’t you stop inviting your hitting partner to the tennis courts if he cheated every time you played a game? Why? Because it’s pointless. Fair competition is not a moral ideal; it’s a basic principle directly tied to the enjoyment of competing and the value of victory. The contest has more value when athletes compete clean. When there is a winner in clean sport, it means something. With doping, someone merely crosses the line first.

There is a third argument that says if so many athletes are doping why don’t we just let them do it. Then the playing field is level again. Game on. Well, that would get rid of the fraud. But it’d be hard to explain to youngsters why half of the offensive line dropped dead on TV from a cardiac arrest. Or for one parent to explain to the other that little Jimmy died because he took something to make the Little League roster. He had to, everyone was doing it.

If sports are allowed to become a pharmaceutical free-for-all, I no longer want anything to do with them. And not just because the drugs are unhealthy. There are plenty of outlets for cheap entertainment in our culture. There’s no need to turn sport, which has the potential to be so much more, into one of them.

The complexities of doping in sport are not growing any simpler and we’re way behind in our understanding of it. The main problem that keeps us from understanding the doping problem is our reluctance to talk about it—our uncharacteristic reluctance to analyze.

I competed in cross-country skiing in college, a sport very similar to cycling with respect to doping (i.e. at the elite level it’s epidemic). I never saw drugs, at least not performance-enhancing ones, but with European and Scandinavian teammates who raced in the Olympics and on the World Cup, I was a lot less than six degrees away from doping. Skiing is a rather obscure sport in the larger scheme of things and, in comparison to sports where seven-figure contracts sit temptingly on the post-collegiate horizon, the pressures to use drugs there must be almost unbearable.

Still, I’m perplexed at why others—my college teammates included—seem less eager to talk about doping. What’s their hesitation? Are they simply uninterested? I love sports, but there are many more dedicated than I. If you’re a sports fan, how do you brush aside the subject of doping? Do you not see the threat?

Two dozen athletes, seven of them medalists, were thrown out of the Olympics in Athens for failing or missing a drug test. That’s a Summer Olympics record. The world and US anti-doping agencies should be applauded for carrying out such an unpopular task, but let’s not kid ourselves—24 dopers out of 10,500 athletes (or 0.2%) is not something to gloat about, record or not. Even to the least cynical, the evidence from the BALCO scandal, recent Tours de France, and a few candid experts, suggests that doping is far more epidemic.

Doping received more media attention in Athens than at any previous Olympics, and it drew a mixed reaction. The most alarming response came from a group noted for what they did not say—alarming, because this group happens to be the most directly affected by doping: the athletes. Time and again when asked how the doping scandals affected their Olympic experience, the athletes appeared uninterested, uncomfortable, or ignorant. Some were even annoyed.

Herman Frazier, chêf de mission of the U.S. athlete’s delegation, said before the Games that “We should be talking about the athletes that are here, rather than all of these other issues.” Perdita Felicien, a Canadian hurdler and one of the most thoughtful and well-spoken Olympians, explained that she tried her best to stay focused and not think about doping. Former sprinter Donovan Bailey said on CBC that he was sick of hearing about it.

So that’s it? The athletes are too focused to think about doping; or they’re sick of it; or they’re annoyed that it distracts from their moment of glory?

Fine. Understandable. But the essence of this attitude is absurd, like dismissing the notion of crime while the burglar is still in your house. Athletes who train and compete clean should be furious. And they shouldn’t feel obligated to keep it to themselves. If 15% of elite athletes are doping (a number that’s probably more realistic than 0.2%), the real question is why are the other 85% so silent while cheaters steal their medals and sponsorship deals? Do clean athletes really have more to lose by blowing the whistle than by facing doped competition?

Whatever the reason, it’s time for athletes to step forward and admit that doping is everybody’s problem and that it’s especially harmful to the clean athletes. If the cheating 15% have made such a scandalous fuss while trying to keep it a secret, then an outspoken 85% could shift the entire culture of sports for the better. Spectators, especially young athletes, need to hear first hand from their role models that before there can be a true victor, there must be a fair competition. But to get to this stage there needs to be a lot more analysis of the impact of doping.

I believe our era of sports will be defined by how the threat of doping is handled. In fact, I’ll make a prediction. In 30 years, give or take a decade, sport as we know it will not exist. It will render itself pointless unless doping is dealt with in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. With methods such as gene doping on the horizon, sport is climbing toward a moment of truth. More athletes and true sports fans need to get in a few words before it’s too late.

Ryan Quinn, a native of Alaska, was a cross-country skier at the University of Utah as part of the 2003 NCAA championship team. He now lives in New York City.


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