The questions linger all too often in the thrilling aftermath of record-shattering sporting achievements: Was it legitimate or achieved with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs? And when a positive test, subsequent confession or overwhelming evidence indicates the latter, do athletes whose performances are tainted deserve a place in sports history?
When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency compiled detailed evidence that Lance Armstrong had doped, lied and bullied his way to glory, the International Cycling Union not only stripped him of his record seven Tour de France titles and every achievement since 1998, but also banned him from competition for life and declared “he deserves to be forgotten.”
On Wednesday, baseball writers will have their say, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2013 class is unveiled. The nominees include first-time candidates Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa, as well as previously passed over Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro — all giants of what has become known as the sport’s “steroids era,” a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when performance-enhancing drugs were so entrenched in the sport’s culture as to be commonplace.
It wasn’t until 2004 that baseball implemented a drug-testing policy for steroids and human growth hormone.
Its late-to-the-party stance has left the 600-some Hall of Fame voters to draw their own ethical lines in deciding which of baseball’s confessed, exposed or highly suspect juicers of an arguably lawless era deserves admission to Cooperstown. Their judgment will be as clear as any baseball statistic: It takes 75 percent of the vote to win Hall of Fame honors. (Washington Post writers do not participate in the voting.)
The general public’s attitudes about performance-enhancing drugs, however, are more complex.
A Washington Post poll conducted on the eve of the Hall of Fame annoucement found a deep division in opinions regarding professional athletes’ use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Just more than half (52 percent) said it bothers them; nearly as many (47 percent) said it doesn’t.
Regarding Armstrong, who has adamantly denied doping allegations throughout his career and will address the charges in a Jan. 17 televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, the poll found that by a slender margin, Americans lean toward giving him credit for his cycling achievements. A slightly smaller percentage (37) said not.
Travis Tygart, USADA’s chief executive, said in an e-mail exchange that sports play an important role in our society, but an increasing win-at-all cost culture carries consequences.
“We know that doping is one symptom of a bigger fight for the soul of sport,” Tygart said, adding that no athlete should be robbed of a chance to succeed fairly. “This is a fundamental fairness and equality issue for athletes.”
Richard Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said the public differentiates between what he calls “the entertainment sports” and “real sports” in its tolerance of doping.
“Do they care what these goons do to get ready to play football every week? I think the answer is no,” said Pound, a Canadian lawyer. “And when you can’t convict guys like [Barry] Bonds and [Roger] Clemens on pretty clear evidence of lying about this, you say, ‘Well, the man on the street or the judicial system just doesn’t care that much.’ Compare that with shock and the bad feelings that are generated if Olympic athletes test positive.”
Cheating is as old as sports. And for well over a century, athletes have turned to unorthodox or illegal substances, whether found in nature or produced in labs, to gain an unfair advantage. In recent decades, performance-enhancing drugs have skewed notions of human performance and undermined the credibility of numerous sports, at least for a time.
East Germany gave thousands of promising swimmers steroids against their knowledge in the 1970s and ’80s in a state-sponsored quest to prove superiority over the West.
Sprinter Ben Johnson brought shame to Canada after testing positive for an anabolic steroid after winning gold in the 100-meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
U.S. Track and Field suffered disgrace roughly a decade later, when it was disclosed that 19 of its medalists from the 1988 to 2000 Olympics had been allowed to compete despite previous positive tests.
And in baseball, the feats of a generation of hitters and sluggers now carries an implied asterisk, whether fairly or not, for having been achieved during the steroids era. Now, professional cycling occupies the spotlight.
The upshot, says Steven Ungerleider, a research psychologist and author of “Faust’s Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine,” is a skepticism bordering on cynicism that has taken hold among a public weary of what feels like endless doping scandals in sports that demand strength, speed, stamina or a combination.
“Swimming and track and field have come a long, long way; they’ve done a good job of policing themselves,” Ungerleider said.
“Now we’re staring at cycling, which is in the limelight with one athlete after another coming forward and not only testing positive but disclosing that it’s a culture that’s rampant with cheating and doping.
“That leads to a skepticism and cynicism: ‘Why should I turn on my TV and watch the Tour de France or the Italian Tour or Olympic cycling when whoever comes in among the top five, we’re going to hear in a month or so that their blood or urine was tainted?’ ”
Norm Bellingham, former chief operating officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, views the current crisis in cycling as an opportunity for all sports to recalibrate their win-at-all-costs mentality.
“Sports is an arena in which young people can test themselves to see what they’re capable of doing, and society can watch to see what our species is capable of doing,” said Bellingham, 48. “When it’s not real — when it has been altered chemically — it becomes a ruse for all of us.”
Among those paying the steepest price, he notes, is the athlete who realizes the short-term, ill-gotten gain.
“If you’re an athlete, and you put in that sort of effort but it’s not real, the results aren’t anything you can really hold your head up about when you look in the mirror,” said Bellingham, a former Olympic canoeist who won gold in the K-2 1,000-meter at the 1988 Seoul Games. “It’s all for nothing, in many respects. It becomes a profession based upon lies. The long-term ramifications for some of these people are very dark.”
Bellingham understands the temptation well.
A Harvard graduate, he and fellow kayaker Greg Barton competed in the 1980s, when Eastern European kayakers increasingly showed up for races with unnatural physiques and posted phenomenal results.
The scuttlebutt was that they were using steroids. Bellingham and Barton debated the choice at length. Was their sport secretly condoning steroid use? Were they being foolish by not doing the same? And they raised the issue with their coach, Bill Endicott.
All agreed the ethical compromise wasn’t worth it. They chose instead to continue competing in the spirit of amateurs of old, treating their sport as a way to test their physical and mental limits.
“If drugs entered into the equation, it became a joke,” Bellingham recalled. “We were working too hard for this journey to find out who we were for it to be a false journey.”
But for other high-performing athletes, the calculus of doping yields a different answer.
Ungerleider, the psychologist and doping expert and author, declined to venture into the mind of any individual athlete he has studied.
But based on anecdotal evidence from working in the Olympic arena for more than 30 years, he believes that many athletes who knowingly take banned substances convince themselves they’re not doing anything improper.
Their first rationalization is a matter of math. They might be college champions or nationally ranked, but they realize that just two or three athletes in their sport will qualify for the Olympic team.
“There’s a perception that the only way you get there is if you create that edge, and that edge means doping,” Ungerleider says. “You have to do it because everybody else does it. It has been sort of the social norm, and the way the social norm has been created is by denial. As you buy into this culture of doping, you’re also buying into this massive denial system: ‘I just brought myself up to a level playing field, and I still [won], so I must be a champion.’ ”
In some respects, the public, which has absorbed one doping scandal after another, has settled on rationalizations of its own.
Says sports ethicist Jan Boxill, director of the Parr Center for Ethics at North Carolina-Chapel Hill: “Most people will say, ‘Yes, I want to see the best that humanity has to offer — drug-free. But human beings hold contradictory views. They’re outraged at Barry Bonds, yet they want to see the home runs.”