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Sports is popular and enduring because in some way, it provides a simple world view. To win the game, one must be the better player or team. To set records, one must finish first, lift the most, throw the farthest, leap the highest. The game starts at a set time. It has a middle and an end. No unfinished business, no uncertain outcomes. At least for the most part.
They also provide talking points. Talking and giving opinions are favorite human past times.
So, it was no surprise that the world erupted when Barry Bonds hit his 71st home run of the season back in 2001, to the chants of “Bar-ry! Bar-ry!” from the ecstatic crowd. He broke the record set by Mark McGwire three years prior.
But that’s not all. Bonds added his 72nd home run the same night. He’d end the season with 73 homers. The record has stood unbroken since.
With such a distinctive career, one would think Barry Bonds is a shoo-in for Hall of Fame induction. But more than a decade after he last reigned over the baseball diamond, The Sultan of Shot is still glaringly absent from the roster. And people are still talking.
Game of Shadows
Why has baseball great Barry Bonds failed to get the number of votes required for a Hall of Fame induction, not just once but 4 times in recent years?
Already a polarizing figure, Bonds’ possible ascent to the storied halls of baseball greatness has been shrouded by allegations of steroid use. Specifically, it has been purported that Bonds used stanozolol, a Schedule III controlled substance.
Unfortunately, he is hardly the only athlete whose career, and future accolades, is mired by a doping scandal. Roger Clemens, another baseball great, is in the same boat. Cooperstown is similarly closed off to “Big Mac” Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa (who, on top of steroid use allegations, was also caught cheating with a corked bat in 2003) and Manny Ramirez (World Series MVP in 2004), among others. Even baseball celebrity Alex Rodriguez may have a tough time getting in as he’s also admitted to using performance enhancing drugs (PED).
Doping cases are not isolated to baseball either. Tennis banned Maria Sharapova for 2 years after testing positive for meldonium. Tyson Gay was prohibited from participating in athletics for a year and had to give back his Olympic medal. Diego Maradona was removed from the Football World Cup in 1994. UFC Champion Anderson Silva received a one-year sanction for anti-doping violations.
But for every athlete caught, there’s also a lot more that have gone on to achieve the very things the so-called dopers failed in.
Major League Baseball (MLB) player Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2017, along with slugger Jeff Bagwell. The year before, Mike Piazza was similarly honored. All three had careers smeared with doping suspicions. Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman to ever play baseball, is in the HOF and he has confessed to using amphetamines for energy boost during his career.
The East Germany Women’s Swim Team that participated in the 1976 Summer Olympics went home with 11 out of 13 possible medals, many of them gold. It was later proven that the women were given anabolic steroids by their coaches and trainers. They were never stripped of their medals.
The National Football League’s (NFL) Brian Cushing failed a doping test in 2009. He was still allowed to finish the season and ended up being awarded the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Pretty much every major sport has an asterisk in the record books to denote achievements that were somehow tainted. These examples above, and many more, not only tarnished sports as a whole. It also cast shadows into the legacies of many athletes, forever having an asterisk beside their names and accomplishments.
Performance-enhancing tactics go as far back as Ancient Greece. It’s been speculated that athletes in the earliest Olympics competed naked to discourage the use of extra equipment that would give an unfair advantage. They also ate lizard’s flesh, apparently because it’s magic when eaten a certain way.
Performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, evolved with the times. In 1904, American Thomas Hicks won the marathon while doped up on strychnine and brandy. Strychnine is a highly toxic alkaloid used mainly as a pesticide. Hicks’ assistants gave it to him to revive him enough to finish the race.
In more recent times, athletes have turned to the less-deadly, albeit not necessarily risk-free, cocktail of steroids.
Developed to treat inflammatory conditions, steroids are usually prescribed for treatment and management of such conditions as arthritis, gout, and asthma. Known by different colloquialisms as gear, juice or roids, they found a very willing audience in athletes who are seeking to foster muscle growth to improve performance.
Types of Performance-Enhancing Drugs
1. Anabolic Steroids
Also called anabolic-androgenic steroids, these are taken to increase muscle mass and strength. The primary anabolic steroid produced by the human body is testosterone.
Testosterone affects the body in two main ways:
· Promotes muscle-building
· Enhances male traits, such as increased facial hair and deeper voice
Testosterone does not improve sports performance per se. What it does instead is build bigger muscles. This results in reduced muscle damage and faster recovery times, therefore allowing for more frequent and intense training sessions.
2. Designer Steroids
Designer steroids are synthetic drugs specially made to be undetectable by current drug tests. They have not been approved by any food and drug board. More dangerous than anabolic steroids, these designer drugs can result in such side effects as prominent breasts and shrunken testicles in men and irreversible voice change and increased body hair in women. Both sexes may also experience increased aggression and depression.
Another naturally-occurring hormone, andro is usually converted into testosterone and estrogen. It’s been touted to increase testosterone and thus boost performance the same way testosterone would. It’s especially popular with bodybuilders.
4. Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
Available via prescription and usually administered by injection, human growth hormone is alleged to improve muscle mass and performance. Although it hasn’t been proven conclusively to deliver on the claim, HGH is no less popular with athletes seeking to get an advantage over opponents.
Cycling icon Lance Armstrong famously admitted in 2013 to using HGH, among other drugs.
Used to treat anemia, erythropoietin (also called EPO) increases red blood cell production. More RBC means more oxygen is carried to the organs. This is why the synthetic form of this hormone is a favorite among endurance athletes.
Diuretics dehydrate the body and thus lead to weight loss. More importantly, it helps dilute urine and is used by athletes as a “masking agent.”
Popular as a powder or pill supplement, creatine monohydrate has been proven to improve performance in short durations of maximum intensity resistance training. It can also result in weight gain. However, prolonged use has shown weight gain to be more likely caused by water retention rather than an increase in muscle mass. In this case, water is drawn into muscle tissues, accounting for the bulk. This puts the body at risk of dehydration.
These are used to stimulate the central nervous system. Among the effects of use are improved endurance, reduced fatigue and increased alertness. They can also work to suppress appetite.
Mostly included in energy drinks, some athletes have taken stimulants to the next level by taking street drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Tennis legend Andre Agassi admitted he used crystal meth in 1997, and lied to escape a ban. Incidentally, not only was Agassi able to keep his titles, he is also one of the most loved sports heroes in America.
Drugs are appealing to athletes because they supposedly reduce muscle damage that happens while working out. With muscle damage reduced, recovery is quicker, thus an athlete can train harder and more frequently. Some drugs also work to enhance alertness and aggressiveness, both useful in competition.
Essentially, performance-enhancing drugs make an athlete bigger, faster and stronger.
But is it fair?
A Black Eye for Sports – No ‘Roids in the HOF
“If they let these guys in ever – at any point – it’s a black eye for the Hall and for baseball.”
- Goose Gossage, relief pitcher and a 2008 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee
The use of steroids and other PEDs will always generate debate. Sports is a contest, yes. But it has endured for centuries because it’s supposed to be a fair contest. It’s supposed to be a field of unity amidst world conflicts, where nationality and skin color and all other so-called societal norms take the backseat.
Fairness and performance-enhancing drugs do not belong in the same sentence for the following reasons:
1. Steroids create an unfair advantage.
By injecting steroids 10 to 100x more than what doctors would legally prescribe, athletes are increasing their muscle mass more. Instead of putting in the gym time, they utilize synthetic means to achieve what would have taken hours and days to accomplish.
The advantage is not limited to the playing field or in training, either. Not only do doped up athletes get to do more per training session, they also recover faster.
Typically, athletes would need to incorporate active rest days in their regimen to ensure muscle recovery and heal from all the stresses from training and game days. Recovery without medication is done via the use of tools like hyperbaric chambers, cryotherapy or the more convenient and accessible massage gun. But while they help in decreasing recovery time, they do not offer the gains steroids do.
2. Using PEDs is cheating.
Sport competitions are a venue not just for displaying skill and talent. It’s also a showcase of honor and integrity. The sports arena therefore deserves respect. Players that used PEDs, taking shortcuts over hard work, clearly did not accord the game the respect it warrants.
They do not deserve to keep medals and titles and they certainly do not deserve to be inducted in any Hall of Fame.
3. The risks outweigh the rewards.
The 1960 Rome Games was witness to the death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen. While racing, Jensen fell from his bicycle and lost consciousness. An inquiry later found that he was under the influence of amphetamine at the time.
Sadly, death may be the more merciful side effect of PEDs. Some are doomed to suffer life-long, permanent health problems like kidney failure, liver damage and high blood cholesterol. They’re also at a greater risk for heart attack, HIV, hepatitis and some cancers.
Why reward anyone who knowingly and willingly puts himself at risk while undermining the legitimate improvement efforts of other athletes?
Bodybuilder and 8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman once said he was “tired of getting my ass kicked” and took steroids to level the playing field. “I probably wasn’t taking any more than what those baseball players were taking.”
But is “everyone’s doing it” even a legitimate argument? Everyone cheating does not make it any more right, does it? So why honor anyone caught cheating by letting them in the Hall of Fame or letting them keep medals?
Greatness Must be Rewarded
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have people that say the use of PEDs should not be a hindrance to a Hall of Fame seat. Why?
1. Steroids are an advantage like any other.
Steroids do give an advantage. That’s something naysayers and acceptors both agree on. But how is it different from using a custom-made shoe for basketball or putting pine tar on a baseball bat for better grip?
Babe Ruth set records while playing in a smaller ball park, that’s an advantage over the home run record. Pitchers used to play on higher mounds which gave an advantage over the batter.
Teams playing on their home courts have an advantage over opponents. Should they not be allowed to win?
At the end of the day, steroids and other PEDs are an advantage just like any other.
2. PEDs don’t mean less training time.
While bulking up is a common side effect of using steroids and PEDs, players still spend incredible amounts of time in weight rooms before and after games. They still train as hard, if not harder, than non-users. Drugs won’t give you skills you don’t have. So really, these athletes are just enhancing what they already have to begin with.
3. It doesn’t hurt anyone but the user.
This is true. A player using steroids or PEDs does not have any impact whatsoever in the health or well-being of anyone else in society.
There is no such thing as the “sanctimony of the Hall of Fame.” Baseball’s HOF, for one, elected Rube Waddell. He was known to beat up fans. Mickey Mantle, another honoree, was a drunk and womanizer. And this is just baseball. Every other sport has its own fair share of “characters.” It would be fair to say then that brushing off “drug-users” may be hypocritical.
Take into account the baseball HOF motto: “Preserving History. Honoring Excellence. Connecting Generations.”
Steroids may help an athlete bulk up, get stronger and recover faster. But it doesn’t guarantee one will hit the ball every single time. It still takes skills and talent to accomplish great feats. If steroids alone is the magic sauce, then anyone can take it and do the same.
Sports honors should not be based on character but actual accomplishments on the field. And keeping the greats of the game away from the Hall of Fame is hardly preserving history or honoring excellence.
What do you think? Should steroid and PED users be allowed to keep their titles/medals and be inducted in the Hall of Fame? Sound off in the comments.