From Ben Johnson to Barry Bonds: Sports' Steroid Scandal Continues
The steely gaze, he’s staring powerfully one hundred metres ahead. The bulky, shaved-headed Ben Johnson is in a duel with the indomitable Carl Lewis. Johnson’s huge biceps and torso make his red colored Canadian vest look miniature. The race is to define his life and his country’s reputation; Johnson’s eyes look focused.
“The final of the Olympic 100m,” the commentator says in a hushed tone befitting the grandeur of the occasion as the gun fires. “And yes, they go first time and Ben Johnson got a brilliant start! It’s Johnson away and clear. And Lewis is not going to catch him. Johnson wins it, Lewis second and Christie third! Unbelievable! 9.79!” He screams.
Johnson’s new world record had shaved a colossal 0.14 seconds off of Lewis’s record.
The glory, the joy, the ability; Johnson was now the fastest man on earth. He lapped the track with his Canadian flag, beaming with pride while being hugged by his teammate, Desai Williams. A superstar was born.
Well, a superstar should have been born.
September 27th, 1988 was the date that track and field was forever tarnished and has never recovered. Just three days after Johnson’s extraordinary exploits, it was revealed he tested positive for the anabolic steroid, Stanozolol. Canada’s euphoria had completely evaporated. The Toronto Sun newspaper headline read simply, “Why Ben?”
The Seoul Olympics was stained throughout for steroid use, 14 years later it was discovered that 10 American athletes had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs.)
Allegedly among them was Lewis, who was awarded the gold medal after Johnson's disqualification.
But it’s not just the Seoul Olympics that have been blemished in recent times; the entire sport has met a plethora of steroid abuse.
Since Johnson, the 100m World Record has twice been rescinded due to the use of PEDs when Tim Montgomery broke the record on Sept 14th 2002, running 9.78s. Justin Gatlin was the second.
Montgomery, with the help of Victor Conte, set about for what they called, “Project World Record.” Before meeting Conte, Montgomery was a talented American sprinter but he certainly didn’t have the natural ability to become the World Record holder.
Conte, when in court, described his ambitions, "I wanted to turn a promising American sprinter into the world’s fastest man.”
Montgomery was the right man for the job. He was quoted as saying if he won the gold, "it would not matter if I died on the other side of the finish line."
Conte believed in his ability to enhance an athlete’s ability when he was with Montgomery, after prior success with Marion Jones.
At the Sydney Olympics, Jones was an icon, the heroine of the Games. Having won three gold medals and two bronze medals, she epitomised the Sydney Olympics.
Jones had been Conte’s first success using the drug he helped create called, “The Clear.”
“The Clear”, or Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG,) was successfully developed at BALCO. It was invisible to drug tests of the late 1990s and early 2000s and it was not until 2007, Jones admitted to taking THG after it had been added to the banned anabolic steroids lists.
When Conte was charged with conspiracy to distribute steroids, he implicated Jones and Montgomery, as well as others including Dwain Chambers, Kelli White, and NFL player Bill Romanowski.
Conte’s most famous exploit, though, was Barry Bonds.
Barry Bonds, the superstar baseball player, the man who holds the record for most career home runs with 762, seven ahead of the great, Hank “The Hammer” Aaron. Bonds’ career record reads better than nearly every slugger who has ever played the game.
The seven-time Most Valuable Player winner hit 73 home runs in one season in 2001 and is the only player to be in the 500-500 club with 762 HR and 516 stolen bases.
However, it has been alleged that Bonds used the PED Stanozolol, the same drug that Ben Johnson used to win 100m gold at the Seoul Olympics.
Major League Baseball has been blighted by such use of banned substances since the mid 1990s. It has been suggested by a number of former players that drugs are rampant in the sport.
Jose Canseco, the former Oakland Athletics’ outfielder, claimed that up to 80 percent of players used steroids and said he used them for his entire career.
Other extremely successful baseball players have admitted to steroid use, such as Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez. This had led to the question of what should be the punishment for steroid users?
In 2005, the MLB finally introduced a system to penalise steroid users. However, the penalties are not significant enough to deter players.
Alex Rodriguez, the current darling of baseball, admitted in 2009 to using steroids between 2001 and 2003. After denying use of performance-enhancing drugs, A-Rod finally admitted it citing, “the enormous pressure to perform,” as the reason. He argued “back then (baseball) was a different culture.”
However, just over one year later and Rodriguez has yet to be punished for his misdemeanours.
The current penalty for a first time offender is just a 10-game ban. This absurd leniency towards cheats in baseball is what has left the game’s reputation in tatters.
Is the "Steroid Era" of baseball over? Not by a long shot.
There are some who believe drugs should not be banned, such as Australian former middle-distance runner Ron Clarke. “If it's not dangerous, no (it should not be banned) it just levels the playing field,” he said. “As soon as something comes along like EPO (erythropoietin)...they'll say it's a drug and you can't use it (but) it's the only thing that levels the playing field.”
However, if sport was "level" in the sense that Clarke describes, then many feel that sport would lose its integrity and its attraction.
In November 2009, Doug Barron became the first golfer to fail the PGA Tour’s new doping policy and had the dubious honour of becoming the poster boy for their policy.
After Barron’s positive test, the PGA Tour stated that he was not the first to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs but the first to be banned for a full year.
Barron, unlike Ben Johnson and Alex Rodriguez, is not an elite athlete. Ranked 891st in the world, Barron was not challenging for Majors, having missed 12 out of 17 cuts on the Nationwide Tour last season.
Barron’s failure came at a time when golf went through a much larger public scandal. While Tiger Woods was coming under media scrutiny for his personal issues, Barron’s drug use went largely unnoticed.
The PGA Tour’s direct actions concerning drug use point towards a future with integrity, though whether this position is consistent from one sport to another remains to be seen. These conflicting doping rules make one question whether there should be uniform rulings through all sports.
In 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) introduced the World Anti-Doping Code to harmonise the rules of all sports across different countries. All Olympic sports had to sign the Code. However, many important sporting federations have rejected the Code, including FIFA, UEFA and the BCCI.
The controversy over the Code comes from the “whereabouts” system.
In 2004, the system stated that any athlete must be available one hour a day, five days a week for no-notice drug tests. However, in January 2009, this was adjusted to seven days per week.
Some argue that this full-time ruling violates the Article Eight of the ECHR, which says that, “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right.”
The Belgian sports union Sporta led a challenge based upon this law. Sporta’s legal team likened the current system “to putting a whole town in prison to catch one criminal.”
Ultimately, it comes down to what athletes are willing to accept in order to stop drug use in sport.
Two staunch supporters of the, “whereabouts system,” are the IAAF and UK Sport.
The IAAF believes that the system, “is both proportionately fair as well as absolutely mandatory for the effective fight against doping in sport."
The current women’s high jump champion Blanka Vlašić echoed those sentiments, saying “it is a price we need to pay for being at top level in our job.”
The case of Britain’s 400m Gold medalist Christine Ohuruogu is a prime example of the, “whereabouts system,” in action.
In August 2006, Ohuruogu was banned for one year for missing three out-of-competition drug tests.
Any British athlete who is found guilty of any doping offences is banned from Olympic competition. After an intense legal battle, Ohuruogo managed to have her ban overturned after a long court battle, allowing her to win Gold in Beijing.
Although she was not found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs, Ohuruogu was duly punished for her indiscretions.
Like Ohuruogu, Dwain Chambers always wanted to be the best.
Chambers has always been his own man. A man so firmly focused on success he has been called “arrogant” and “overconfident.” Chambers though, always believed in his ability to become one of the world’s elite 100m sprinters.
Victor Conte, the man who had worked alongside Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones and Barry Bonds, was the ideal man to get him to the top.
After struggling against the likes of Montgomery and Maurice Greene, Chambers knew he needed help to succeed. Conte managed to convince him that he needed banned substances to get there. He described Chambers as being on, “the full enchilada” mix of drugs, which included human growth hormone, EPO, and The Cream (TGH.)
“Victor Conte trained Marion Jones to be world and Olympic champion and I’m in better shape now than ever,” claimed Chambers in an interview with the News of the World on June 16, 2002. He became successful as he recorded a 200m personal best of 20.27 seconds.
Maurice Greene said of Chambers, after being comprehensively beaten by him on June 28th, 2002, “He was better prepared than me and fully deserved the victory. He's getting better and better. I can't be mad with myself—he ran so well.”
Greene didn’t know the half of it.
It was not until October 2003 that Green would learn the full details of Chambers' new-found improvement and success.
During a United States Anti-Doping investigation of BALCO, it was found that Chambers as well as Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones were using anabolic steroids.
On the 22nd of October, Chambers tested positive for THG. He was the first athlete to test positive for it.
“The Clear” was no longer clear. Victor Conte’s miracle drug was now detectable. Chambers, meanwhile, was given a two-year ban from athletics as well as a lifetime ban from the Olympics.
Chambers' career was forever tainted.
"Ironically, with the exception of the 9.87's he clocked to equal Linford Christie's British record in Paris in 2002, Chambers was a consistently quicker athlete before he moved to San Francisco that year and became entangled in the drugs net spun by Victor Conte and the Bay Area Lab Co-operative,” wrote Simon Turnbull, the Independent’s athletics correspondent.
Chamber’s legacy will forever be related to his drug use. It makes one question why athletes continue to do it especially with the growing standards of drug tests.
Current doping statistics in track and field suggest that drug cheating is dropping.
The IAAF released the figures on doping control at all the IAAF World Championship events between 1983 and 2009.
At the Edmonton games of 2001, there were 390 tests and nine of them were positive (the highest number of positive tests at any World Championships.)
Now with more stringent testing, the figures indicate that doping abuse is dropping. At the Osaka games of 2007, 1132 athletes were tested and not one was found positive.
These numbers could suggest that either doping control is becoming much more regulated and successful, or they could say that drug cheats are finding more discreet methods in which to take steroids.
Victor Conte managed to let Marion Jones use “The Clear” successfully during the 2000 Sydney Olympics by passing the doping tests. WADA must remain as vigilant as possible.
It took an anonymous tip to the United States Anti-Doping Agency in June 2003 to learn of the undetectable drug, “The Clear.” However, the scientists at WADA and other national doping agencies must be proactive.
It is absolutely essential that the agencies and sporting federations continue to fund doping control. Drug cheats must be stopped and it will take an immense amount of determination and effort for sport to stay as clean as possible.
The other method to reduce doping offences is harsher deterrents. Certain sports need to take a much more authoritarian stance towards offenders. The varying levels of vigilance across different sports needs to be corrected.
Certain sports are more known for drug use than others.
Cycling has long been blighted and it is widely regarded as one of the most drug-soaked sports in the world.
Scottish cyclist David Millar said, “It's cleaner than it's ever been. In a decade, we have gone from being probably what was one of the dirtiest professional sports to the sport that is at the vanguard of anti-doping.”
Millar was banned from competing for two years in 2004 after admitting using the blood booster EPO but has now become a prominent anti-doping spokesman.
The Scottish rider has been vocal in his denunciations of doping and dopers in cycling. He currently rides for the US Garmin Transitions, team which is noted within the sport for the strong stance it takes against doping. Millar recently had his lifetime ban rescinded by Commonwealth Games Scotland.
With Millar’s rehabilitated opinions, one wonders whether it takes lifetime bans for drug cheats to acknowledge what they are doing is wrong and to ultimately stop athletes cheating.
Sport obviously needs to be universal in its damnation of drug offenders. How some sports can have such lax punishments for steroid users is reprehensible.
It is imperative that WADA is able to enforce lifetime bans, not just in sports like cycling and track and field but also sports where WADA’s influence is not as great. Institutions like FIFA, MLB, and the ICC must allow their sports to meet WADA’s code of conduct.
If they do not, then sport will not be fair and even, it will be unwatchable.
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