I keep reading columns arguing that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is on a witch hunt to get Marion Jones, and that the real crimes in the Great American Steroid Hunt are being committed by the investigators. I come away from these columns feeling that I'm supposed to think Marion Jones is being examined unfairly.
Well, look, I hope Marion Jones is innocent. I hope she never as much as looked at a performance-enhancing drug, let alone took one. But there is enough smoke around this woman to choke a horse, and you have to wonder if somewhere there's any fire. Here is a woman whose former husband, an Olympic shot putter, was popped for testing positive for steroids, and whose current paramour (and father of her child), an Olympic sprinter, is accused of taking steroids -- and has reportedly testified to a grand jury that he did so. Plus, Jones is one of many elite athletes who have been affiliated with BALCO, which is being investigated for producing and distributing steroids. How could it be illegitimate to look at Marion Jones? How could anyone not think that Marion Jones is what we have come to call "a person of interest"?
The reason more people have not leaped to the defense of athletes being accused of using performance-enhancing drugs is because most Americans believe athletes use these drugs. We know Olympians around the world use them, because in every Olympics sprinters and weightlifters and swimmers and skiers get tossed out on their keisters for testing positive. Before Ben Johnson there were East German swimmers. After Ben Johnson there were Bulgarian weightlifters and Belarus hammer throwers. This is an old story. It extends to the NFL and the Tour de France, and everywhere there's money to be made off athletics.
The great innovation in chemistry isn't the drug that helps you get bigger, stronger and faster. The showstopper is the drug that masks the steroid -- and makes the test irrelevant. Now there are two ways you can go: 1) You can make all these performance-enhancing drugs legal on the grounds they represent the march of progress and fall into the same category as better nutrition and better training equipment. Or 2) you can get better chemists to work the policing side of the street, so the drug tests detect everything, including the "undetectable" drugs.
In the meantime you have to look at athletes who do extraordinary things and wonder if they are being aided by something more than hard work and dedication. Forget sprinters for a second and let's go to a sport we all know and care about: baseball. For 70 years the home run record was either 60 or 61. Then six years ago it went to 70, an amazing leap. And three years later it went to 73. So to review: The home run record was set in 1927. Thirty-four years later it went up by one, and held there for 37 years. Then in three years it went up by 12! You think that's just because the pitchers today are bad? Or the ballparks are smaller? What are you, nuts?
Most people wonder if steroids had anything to do with it. Most people look at the staggering amount of home runs hit by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, and ask: Are they on the juice? This suspicion is surely fueled now by the fact that Bonds is a BALCO guy, and by the fact that just this week baseball banned the supplement commonly known as "andro," which McGwire took, quite legally, six years ago when he was chasing Roger Maris's 61.
I remember how wonderful that Summer of '98 was, the way McGwire and Sosa goosed each other on toward 61, and how, through the sheer joy he brought to every at-bat, Sosa humanized McGwire. And how McGwire ultimately became a hero in the glorious way he played and the gracious way he treated Maris's family -- and in that iconic moment when he rounded the bases after hitting No. 62 and picked up his son and hugged him tight. But now I know more than I want to about supplements and steroids. I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then, because now I find it hard to look at 70 and not wonder if everything was kosher. I find it hard to look at 73 reverently now, because at least McGwire had a history of being a home run hitter. Bonds did not. I know steroids can't help you hit the ball if you can't hit it to begin with. But if you can hit it, they can help you hit it farther. And I hear the words of the late Sen. Sam Ervin echo in my head: "If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck."
I keep reading how a lot of these Olympic athletes have never tested positive, and how USADA should get off their backs already. But one athlete reportedly testified to the grand jury that he used steroids, and some of the stuff he used was designed to fool the drug tests. Leaking grand jury testimony is deplorable. If USADA's people did that, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I'm also troubled by how USADA has lessened the burden of proof to sanction an athlete, from a positive test to circumstantial evidence. There's an Oklahoma Land Run quality to USADA's prosecution. But now we're told you can take drugs and still pass the drug tests. So what do we do with that knowledge? How do you catch the people who do that? I've always assumed athletes want their sports to be clean.
It may be that USADA has nothing whatsoever on Marion Jones, and they're trying to shake her down. She never tested positive. She says she never took any performance-enhancing drugs; I hope that's true. But I've seen enough in sports to worry about the ripples from this BALCO investigation getting everybody wet -- baseball players, football players, track athletes. Down the road how many athletes affiliated with BALCO are going to come out looking, walking and quacking like ducks?