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What's So Bad About Performance Enhancement? 

The steroid debate rages on

Wednesday, Dec 19 2007
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Last Thursday, after 21 months in preparation, Senator George Mitchell issued his report on the abuse of performance-enhancing substances in major-league baseball. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said the report was “a call to action” and did his best to assure everyone, treating the unveiling of the Mitchell Report as if it were a matter of national security, that he will “continue to deal with the issue of performance-enhancing substance abuse.” He might continue to try, but as everyone who knows anything about the matter will tell you, the truth is, there’s really no dealing with it.

It comes down to math. All steroids are hormones, and all hormones begin life as cholesterol. The body turns cholesterol into progesterone, estrogen, DHEA, testosterone and cortisol, but these aren’t the only possibilities. In fact, chemists can turn cholesterol into a near-infinite number of possibilities. Unfortunately, the only steroid tests we have are one-for-one matches, and we have only about 40 of those. So the race between the chemists who create new performance-enhancing substances and chemists who create new tests for new performance-enhancing substances is long over. There’s just no way to stay ahead of the numbers.

And while many people know there’s currently no test for human growth hormone, what is less known is that some of the other tests are often inaccurate. “The test for Nandrolone [another widely used steroid] frequently produces false positives,” says Dr. Mark Gordon, a Los Angeles physician and steroid expert. “We can’t identify the drug directly, so we look for elevated levels of progesterone, one of the main substances present after the body breaks down Nandrolone. But progesterone occurs naturally, and some people are born with levels higher than legally allowed by these tests. Even more alarming, many of these tests are administered right after exercise, and exercise concentrates progesterone in the bloodstream. The tests read this concentration as elevation, and innocent athletes lose medals.”

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The fact that there’s no real reckoning with performance-enhancing substances has been known for a while now. In 2001, Charles Francis, Ben Johnson’s track coach, wrote in Testosterone Magazine: “Another unmodified drug that had been widely used up to and during the 2000 Sydney Olympics was Genabol. By the time the test was developed, the word was out and athletes moved on to other products.”

In 2005, Don Catlin, the head of UCLA’s Olympic Analytical Laboratory and the man who put “the clear” and “the cream” into the popular lexicon during the Barry Bonds/BALCO scandal, told reporters: “People are following the old model — run ’em down, chase ’em, find ’em, assume they are guilty, drag them into testing. And athletes still get away with stuff, and I maintain you can get away with stuff with everyone looking at you.”

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

THE CASE AGAINST STEROIDS IN BASEBALL is built on two premises. The first is that they’re unhealthy for the athletes and those whom athletes inspire. There’s a long version of why that’s not true (see “Sympathy for the Devil,” originally published July 28, 2005, at laweekly.com/news/features/sympathy-for-the-devil/417/), but the short version is that while steroids can have devastating effects in children, in adults negatives are increasingly hard to find. As one of the world’s leading steroid experts and the man who designed the drug-testing program for NASCAR, the WWE and the World Power Lifting Federation, Dr. Mauro di Pasquale, says, “As used by most people, including athletes, the adverse effects of anabolic steroids appear to be minimal. They do not cause cancer, they do not cause kidney failure, they do not cause much of anything except an increase in lean muscle mass.” Which is why, in 1988, when Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, making trafficking in steroids illegal, he did so only after ignoring protests from the American Health Association, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration — the four regulatory agencies that are supposed to have control over the drug-scheduling process.

The second idea is about fairness. Baseball wants us to believe that by tilting the playing field, performance-enhancing substances threaten the integrity of the game. But claiming the integrity of the game is based on players’ being drug-free is naive at best and disingenuous at worst. It’s been well-documented that the sport’s been neck-deep in amphetamines since the 1940s. The U.S. Army gives soldiers in Iraq Adderall for the same reason outfielders have long taken “greenies” — amphetamines are fantastic performance enhancers. And isn’t this an arbitrary line anyway? No one really questions the cortisone shots catchers take for pain or the pitchers who come back from Tommy John surgery with more speed on their fastball, yet both tilt the playing field.

The truth may be that bionics makes for better baseball and we like it that way. Baseball was moribund following the strike of 1994 and was resuscitated on the (allegedly) performance-enhanced backs of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during the great home-run-record chase of 1998. Since then, baseball attendance has risen overall every year. Prior to the report’s appearance, the big news was Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $275 million deal with the Yankees. A-Rod is 32 years old. And despite his denials to Katie Couric this past Sunday on 60 Minutes that he’s ever taken or even been tempted to take performance-enhancing drugs, Rodriguez’s hormones began declining in his mid-20s. The only way the Yanks are going to get their money’s worth is via a little chemical augmentation. So ask yourself: What’s more important to Yankee fans — cleaning up baseball or beating the Red Sox in the World Series?

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