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The drug testing feedback loop

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Once or twice a decade, the sporting press shocks the world with revelations of the industry's seedy drug underbelly. One of the first came in 1969, when Bil Gilbert blew the lid off the painkiller, amphetamine and steroid epidemic across the whole wide world of sports. In the opener to to the third and final part of his series, Gilbert wrote:

Drugs can kill sport. That, one assumes, reflecting upon the filled ball parks, the jammed arenas and the sorry-no-standing-room reports from events such as the Masters, ought to be an exaggeration. But it is far from excessive to conclude that the increasing use of drugs by athletes poses a significant menace to sport, one that the athletic Establishment is assiduously trying to ignore. While commissioners, owners, managers, coaches and trainers pretend that the situation in 1969 is no different than it was 30 years ago when the most stimulating thing you got at a drugstore was a soda, the truth is that today's athletes are popping more pills for more purposes than are dreamt of in almost anybody's philosophy—or pharmacy.

In some ways, Gilbert is prophetic. The increasing use of drugs can indeed be described a "significant menace" to sports, as baseball (with its Biogenesis scandal) and football (with the NFL sued over irresponsibility with painkillers) both show. And the sporting establishment indeed ignored its drug issues for as long as it could, until scandal in the Olympics and in Major League Baseball (among others) moved larger governing bodies to force the issue.

But mostly, Gilbert is issuing a familiar threat -- the death of sport -- that reappears every time the nation goes through a new steroid panic. It was there when the Olympics were first hit with the steroid scandal in the 1980s. In 1988, conservative commentator George Will concluded a column on the evil of steroids:

A society's recreation is charged with moral significance. Sport would be debased, and with it a society that takes sport seriously, if sport did not strictly forbid things that blur the distinction between the triumph of character and the triumph of pharmacology.

In 1980, former IOC president Michael Morris (The 3rd Baron Killanin in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, whatever that means) was more explicit:

The creation of artificial man is something that will kill sport -- whether amateur or professional -- faster than anything else.

In recent years, even the government has gotten involved. The Mitchell Report from 2007 was clear. Under a heading titled and underlined, "The Problem Is Serious:"

The illegal use of performance enhancing substances poses a serious threat to the integrity of the game. Widespread use by players of such substances unfairly disadvantages the honest athletes who refuse to use them and raises questions about the validity of baseball records. In addition, because they are breaking the law, users of these substances are vulnerable to drug dealers who might seek to exploit their knowledge through threats intended to affect the outcome of baseball games or otherwise.

This destruction has yet to appear, even as steroid use has continued unabated. Less than one year removed from the Biogenesis scandal, its effects are nearly imperceptible, outside of the occasional boos when Ryan Braun bats in opposing ballparks. Players like Braun and Nelson Cruz and Melky Cabrera have raked in All-Star votes.

Gilbert's solution: other sports should follow the lead of horse racing, the first highly visible American sport to establish drug testing and drug regulations. In his argument, he responds to those who would say drug testing is unnecessary:

One possible way out of the definition morass was suggested by Professor E. J. Ariens, a Dutch physician. He would, by fiat, declare that there is no such thing as doping; let anyone take anything he wants so long as he gets it from a licensed physician. Said Ariens at the UNESCO conference: "We live in a time when sportsmen are sold from one league or club to another. There is a gliding scale from pure professionalism in sport via semiprofessionalism and quasi-nonprofessionalism to true uncomplicated sportive competition by amateurs Rigid training schedules of eight hours and more a day are accepted and considered 'natural.' Maybe for certain forms of professionalism in sport, the acceptance of expert-controlled conditioning by drugs would be less detrimental than today's clandestine and backward use of these means, which brings about unnecessary risks for the health of many of our favorite sportsmen."

Ariens' approach has the obvious advantage of doing away with hypocrisy, which in itself is one of the most corrupting features of drug usage. However, the proposal has several serious drawbacks, the most important of which has already been noted: the use of drugs strikes at the fundamental nature of sport, namely, competition between equals. Given their head, most athletes and their attendants could be expected to start a mad scramble, a sort of sports equivalent of the arms race, as they tried to find new, secret drugs that would give them at least a temporary advantage over the opposition. The winners in such a situation might well not be the best athletes but the richest, those with the best technological resources at their disposal.

Sporting organizations across the world have indeed followed Gilbert's suggested solution and repeatedly installed tougher and testing regulations and regimens. And yet, precisely what Gilbert said would happen in a world without testing has come to pass. Athletes in major sports are regularly implicated in doping scandals. In Part II of his series, Gilbert quotes Jacques Anqueitl, a five-time champion of the Tour de France:

I dope myself. Everyone [that is, everyone who is a competitive cyclist] dopes himself. Those who claim they don't are liars.

Forty-five years later, after decades of Gilbert's solution of rigorous drug testing, Anqueitl's statement echoes the sentiments of the current day. Our language is just a bit more flowery. See two-time U.S. professional cycling champion John Eustice, writing in TIME on Lance Armstrong:

For some of his teammates, ones with strong families and educational backgrounds, the decision to retreat from the brutal realities of pro sport is not a difficult one. But for Lance, born to a 16-year-old single mother and having gambled his future on becoming a successful pro athlete, there was really little choice. The working conditions of his job demanded that he dope. And if Lance was going to go down that road, you can be certain that he was going to do it better than anyone else in the world.

There are real issues with drugs in sports. The reckoning with the side effects of steroids may be yet to come for players both in the league and recently retired. Issues with the painkiller Toradol, a drug popular between starts for pitchers, have already resulted in multiple lawsuits in football.

But none of them have been solved by the drug war embraced by Gilbert and others. The same problem, of massive drug use and abuse by athletes in a largely unsupervised environment, exists despite the introduction of increasingly strong drug testing regimens. Major League Baseball's move in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal has been to increase the strength of its testing policy yet again. History shows how well it will work.

The drug testing feedback loop
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