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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 10:51 am

The needle and the records won

Should performance-enhancing drugs in sports be legal?

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Melky Cabrera
PHOTO BY DAVID EULITT/MCT

San Francisco, city and club, are famously tolerant of people who don’t play by the book, but Major League Baseball tolerates it only among its umpires. The game’s poobahs have ruled that a player who uses the same sort of methods to win a job on a big-league club that its owners used to acquire it is anathema. Which is why the Giants left fielder Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games in August after he was found to have doped himself with testosterone.

MLB’s anti-doping policy presumably benefits the Game. It also, inadvertently, benefited the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time he was suspended, Cabrera led the league in hitting; without him, the Giants hit a little like Obama during his first presidential debate. His suspension meant that the Cards were spared having to face Cabrera in the National League championship series.

The Giants were not asked, however, to forfeit any of the wins they racked up while Cabrera was playing and which earned them a spot in the playoffs. Nor did St. Louis after their slugger Mark McGwire confessed to having used testosterone. (McGwire is now a Cardinals hitting instructor, which is a little like appointing George W. Bush ambassador to Iraq.)

Another doper in the news recently, cyclist Lance Armstrong, has not been treated so generously; he was stripped of all his Tour de France titles, and had he not already dumped her that sport’s rule-makers probably would have stripped him of Sheryl Crow too. (See “Cheating is the American way,” Sept. 30, 2012.) Armstrong’s use of banned substances was knowing, cynical and sustained. Such systematic and shameless violations of official protocols have left even some cycling fans wondering whether cycling has any credence as competition.

I think that cycling was uniquely bad among big-money sports because tour cycling is a uniquely demanding sport. The three-week stage races like the Tour de France – the two other famous ones are run in Spain and in Italy – are far and away the most physically demanding of all sporting events. The TdF lasts 23 days, with two rest days. That means 21 days of racing, on some days spending five or six hours in the saddle. Each year’s route varies, but the 2012 race was typical, covering 2,098 miles along a route that included nine days racing up and down mountains and two individual time-trial stages, the latter being all-out sprints over roughly 30 miles each. Winning any one of these stages counts as a career-changing victory; to win several makes you a star. To do it, a typical rider will burn 5,200 calories a day and can burn as many as 7,000 or 8,000 on the most demanding mountain stages. Running a marathon by comparison burns only 1,800 calories.

In short, if the temptation to dope has been more pressing in big-time cycling it’s because the demands on the body are more pressing. And precisely because there has been more cheating in cycling, cycling imposes drugs tests that are more stringent than those in place by the mainstream U.S. sports. (The NBA’s drug-testing protocols in particular are a joke.) Cycle racing is probably cleaner now than any other big-money sport -- not because proportionally fewer athletes try to cheat but that proportionately more of those who do are being caught.

Unfortunately, it must be admitted that even cycling caught Armstrong only well after the fact, and then not because of the sport’s good tests but because of the bad consciences of the other riders involved. Such realities suggest that the hope that all cheaters can be eliminated from big-money sports is naïve. Drug testing, in other words, reduces unfair advantages but unfair advantages remain.

“Unfair” has meaning only in terms of the present rules. Why not change the rules and make honest men and women of our elite athletic performers? The cure for cheating in sports is to make cheating legal. (The model here is our campaign financing laws.) If you can’t stop the use of performance-enhancing drugs, then grant the laurels to the smartest, the most aggressive, the cleverest at using them.

It will be said that it’s wrong for people to profit from the misuse of dangerous drugs. Why? The pharmaceutical companies do. It also will be said that bringing the needle out into the open in this way would invite tragedy, that the misuse or overuse of performance-enhancing drugs will put the health, even the lives of athletes at risk. True, but so do sports. NFL players destroy their bodies one joint, one organ at a time and no one frets as long as the hits keep coming. The stunted, thwarted bodies of young female gymnasts say everything that needs saying about that sport.

We don’t have rules in politics or business or war in this country, why be squeamish about playing our games that way? Unrestrained drug use would sure add a new dimension to the term finish line. English cyclist Tom Simpson in 1967 gave 110 percent on the slopes of Mount Ventoux with the help of amphetamines and died. The lesson for you kiddies is not that Simpson died because he doped, but that he lost because he doped stupidly. Sports fanatics are fond of saying that winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing. Fine. Let athletes prove it.  
Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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