By Phillip Whitten
Dick Pound, Vice President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been outspoken in his denunciation of doping in sport. So, too, have US Senators John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Jim Bunning (R., Ky.), who introduced legislation recently in the Senate calling for the same penalties for pro athletes as Olympic athletes – a two year ban for a first doping offense, a lifetime ban for a second offense.
That’s why recent statements and actions by all three of these men have been so disappointing to those of us who are serious about clean sport.
Last week, Pound and IOC President Dr. Jacques Rogge pressed their quest for the Italian parliament to suspend its harsh anti-drugs law for the two weeks of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino next February 10-26. They conjured up images of skiers being led off in cuffs after completing their downhill runs on the Olympic slope; of carabinieri jumping onto the ice to arrest a hockey player or ice dancer: of SWAT teams bursting into the Olympic Village to bust an Olympic doping ring.
"It's always been our view that sports should settle its own problems," said Pound in an interview with the Associated Press, putting a full court press on Italian legislators and Olympic organizers. "Doping in sports is a serious problem and will be dealt with seriously, but it is not criminal.”
Doping in sports is, indeed, a serious problem. And to your great credit, WADA has made significant strides in addressing the problem. But you are wrong about doping in sports not being criminal. It is, of course, self-destructive. And it is also criminal.
Allow me to explain.
You and I – in fact, just about all of us – would agree that if someone breaks into your house and carts away your Rolex watch, your wife’s diamond jewelry and your wallet containing $1,000, your credit cards, driver’s license and other forms of ID, that intruder has committed several felonious acts – among them, burglary and theft.
Now, let’s say an athlete uses THG – a designer steroid developed by BALCO – or any illegal, performance-enhancing substance, to improve his or her athletic performance. Let’s say that this substance, used in conjunction with the athlete’s regular training, results in a modest four percent increase in strength or speed. That doesn’t sound like much, but it makes all the difference in the world. It can change a 10.2-second 100-meter sprinter – a non-finalist at the Olympic Games – into a 9.79-second world record-breaker; it can convert a woman who swims 100-meters freestyle in 56 seconds, which doesn’t even make semifinals, into a 53.76-second world-beater. It may even transform a wiry, 27-home run hitter into a muscular, 75 home run slugger.
“Unfair,” you acknowledge. “Unsportsmanlike,” you agree. “Certainly cheating.”
“But how is it criminal”? you ask.
It’s criminal in that it deprives — no, it robs — the athlete who has trained and played by the rules of the rewards he or she has earned legitimately. These days those rewards include not only a gold medal and national or even global recognition, but also the possibility to earn millions of dollars in commercial endorsements, speaking honoraria, post-athletic careers in acting, business and so on.
The cheater is committing felonious theft that is every bit as serious, every bit as violating, every bit as devastating, as the thief who breaks into your house and takes your wallet. No, more so!
In 1976, Shirley Babashoff was the best female swimmer in the world. She should have won a record six gold medals – four for individual events, two for relays — in Montreal.
But that was the heyday of the East German doping machine. Shirley came home with four individual silver medals – each time breaking the world record but finishing second to East Germany’s Kornelia Ender or Petra Thumer — plus a relay silver and, in the final women’s event, a relay gold. One gold medal and five silvers versus six gold medals — what she rightfully earned
When she complained publicly that the East German women — extraordinarily hirsute, built like men and possessing very deep voices – were obviously doped, she was called a sore loser and dubbed “surly Shirley” by the media. An East German coach mocked her: “We have come to swim, not to sing,” he said.
We know now, of course, that Shirley Babashoff was right. The East Germans were engaged in a government-organized, politically motivated program of cheating by doping thousands of young athletes. They were never caught.
But what of Shirley Babashoff? She returned to the USA a “failure.” Even worse, a whiner – someone who made wild accusations to excuse her own short-comings. Instead of being celebrated as the most successful female athlete in Olympic history, she became a mail carrier in southern California, withdrew into herself and drifted into obscurity. Chances are, if you’re not a swim buff, you don’t even know her name.
Dick, Shirley Babashoff – not to mention the other great athletes cheated by the East Germans – was the victim of a criminal act – a criminal conspiracy – that tarnished her reputation for decades and forever impacted her life.
Likewise, when mediocre sprinter Ben Johnson – he of the cat-quick reflexes and yellow eyes – flew across the finish line at the 1988 Games in Seoul, he deprived Carl Lewis, the legitimate winner, of the accolades he had earned. Yes, Johnson tested positive and was stripped of his medal only days later. But Lewis, who earned the gold medal, lost his chance to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” played as he stood atop the podium while almost a billion people watched worldwide.
The Senate Flinches
The revised bill introduced by Senators McCain and Bunning, both strong men of courage and good will, would reduce the proposed penalties for pro baseball, football, basketball and hockey players to the following: a half-season ban (presumably without pay) for a first steroid offense, a one season ban for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third.
(Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has proposed a much lighter set of penalties — a 50 day suspension for a first offense, 100 for a second, lifetime for the third — while the baseball players’ union has offered 20 days, 75 days and an undetermined penalty for a third offense.)
These penalties are a great improvement over the laughable sanctions currently in place in these pro sports, but they are far from the Olympic “gold standard,” which, itself, was a compromise. Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and McCain said they had made the change in their bill to gain support from other legislators. Presumably, these other legislators felt the penalties originally proposed were too harsh.
But that makes no sense at all. A professional athlete who takes steroids (or human growth hormone or EPO) does so with the explicit intent to cheat. He consciously is putting into his body a substance he knows to be both illegal and specifically prohibited by the rules of his sport. He knows he is undermining the integrity of his sport.
This is no naïve high school or junior high student. This is a grown man, consciously making the decision to cheat and to enhance his performance at the expense of his opponents.
In what way is this athlete different from the thief who breaks into your home? Would you slap the wrist of the thief who burgles your house three times before prohibiting him from practicing his profession? Does the fame (and financial resources) of the pro athlete make him a more sympathetic character than the thief?
I think not. In fact, in some ways it is the thief who is the more deserving of our sympathy. Chances are he really needs the money he steals. The pro athlete is a rich man who, unless he is extraordinarily stupid, will never have to work a day in his life after he retires from his sport at 30, 35 or 40.
How, you may ask, is the pro athlete stealing? Let’s say that A and B are pro baseball players. A, a pitcher, does not take steroids; B, a power hitter, does. It’s the final game of the World Series. A is pitching to B and the score is tied, the count is 2-and-2 when A throws a 98 mph fastball.
Normally, B, who is 41 years old, would not be able to get his bat around fast enough to hit the ball. But the THG he’s taken gives him a little extra speed and he makes contact, though not with the meat of his bat.
Had B not taken steroids, he would have hit a lazy fly to center field, 30 feet shy of the wall. But his added strength is just enough to put the ball in the seats. B’s team wins!
A hangs his head in disgrace and shuffles off the field while a jubilant B rounds the bases to the cheers of the crowd and is greeted at the plate by his teammates.
A, the pitcher, becomes the goat of the series, fails to get a $250,000 bonus for winning a Series game, loses confidence and is traded to another team. Two years later, he retires at 33.
(Meanwhile, B gets a $250,000 bonus for hitting the game-winning home run, then immediately demands to renegotiate his contract or be traded. His team renegotiates his four-year deal, paying him an extra $6 million per year.)
So hang in there, Senators McCain and Bunning. A watered-down set of penalties only makes cheating all the more tempting. Let’s bring pro sports up to the level of Olympic sports.