Chemical Games

Over the past six years, Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, and Floyd Landis have been among the most celebrated names in sports.

Today, they are merely the latest performance enhancement drug suspects in a long tradition of infamy. (We know Jones’s positive test was cleared, but she has the most suspicious legacy this side of Barry Bonds.)

We are embarrassed that our sport, which is so fundamentally simple, has been tarnished by drug scandals. However, we’re also proud that running and cycling have the most rigorous drug testing policies around. But sometimes, imperfect tests merely add to the confusion.

This won’t be your typical article about drugs. It’s not that we don’t care. We take this very seriously. It’s an admission that we have absolutely no idea what the best solution might be.

One school of thought says that we should legalize everything for competition. If you want to use HGH or EPO or synthetic testosterone, or blood doping, go right ahead. If you want to roll the dice and risk your long-term health, that’s your business.

It doesn’t appear to be much of a moral dilemma for many athletes to use drugs to gain a competitive advantage. We suspect that one reason they cheat is because they believe most of their competitors are doing the same. The financial rewards for victory can be tremendous motivators – no matter how you reach the top.

You can see how this can potentially spiral into a situation where everybody’s juicing, because nobody would want to be stuck with the equivalent of bringing only a knife to a gun fight.

So it’s not too difficult to envision a future competition where all the athletes are on some drug or another. One sport – bodybuilding – has gone down this road, to the point where they hold two separate competitions: there’s a Mr Universe for drug users, and a “Mr Natural Universe” for anyone else.

In fact, many people will tell you this “everybody’s juiced” situation is exactly what we have in track and cycling today. The only difference with bodybuilding is that they don’t ask us to pretend otherwise.

What if running formally adopted such a policy? Instead of merely having the best athletic ability, competitors would also strive to have the most potent pharmacological cocktail on board before their peak races.

They would be dependent on chemists and lab geeks to achieve their success. Imagine every sprinter’s posse with one skinny, bespectacled guy in a short-sleeve plaid shirt with a pocket protector roaming around trying to look cool with the rest of the group. If nothing else, it would provide some comedic irony.

Think about it – who got teased and beat up more in high school than the kids in chemistry club? And weren’t the jocks usually the ones doing most of the bullying? And now those two groups would be pairing off in oddball symbiotic relationships like Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley.

The chemists would actually have the upper hand in these partnerships. They would be too valuable to the athlete to be fired – because the chemist could then go and tell everybody else what particular designer drugs the athlete was on. And the athlete knows he or she won’t succeed without the help of a good lab geek.

The chemistry dudes could totally revel in this, and do all kinds of trash talking with the sprinters. Between events at track meets, they can congregate on the infield to gossip about their athletes, draw formulas in the dirt and trade periodic table jokes. They might even encounter chemistry groupies wanting to make “covalent bonds” with them after the meets.

Over time, the chemists would get the same rock star treatment the athletes get. The better ones would sign “exclusive rights” contracts with companies like Nike and become millionaires. Scores of little kids will dream of a career in laboratory science, and of growing up to compete at the “Chemical Games,” where the torch is an enormous Bunsen burner. The best chemistry students coming out of grad school could be drafted by professional teams and awarded lucrative signing bonuses. If you’re a career chemist, where’s the downside to any of this?

Realistically, we know this isn’t going to happen. We suppose that’s for the good. Sports have an inherently noble premise – that athletes are testing the limits of their God-given talents through nothing more than hard work and determination. And despite our jaded outlook, it’s a premise we’re completely in favor of defending.

Yes, the tests are light years behind the cheaters, but that doesn’t mean we should stop the effort. It’s just going to take a very long time before the priority (and money) given to testing is equal to the money that changes hands among the top athletes and corporations in every sport.

Until then, most sports will continue to have an anemic system of testing (One time per year for a baseball player? Spare us.), and they’ll continue to profess that they’re doing everything in their power to rid sports of doping.

All of the top-level athletes will emphatically assert that they are completely clean, and fans will believe what they want to believe about each athlete based on his/her carefully crafted image.

Meanwhile, none of us will ever know for sure if the next heroes like Marion Jones or Floyd Landis are true champions, or merely another example of all that’s wrong with sports. That is the true tragedy.


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