Poor Barry McCaffrey. Not being satisfied with shooting surrendering Iraqis or ordaining the latest drug raids into the homes of unarmed senior citizens, the former general now wants to clean up sports. Where the rest of us have seen some great competition at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, McCaffrey sees only drug addicts.
His latest foray into this netherworld of performance enhancing drugs in athletics comes with his demand that USA Track and Field immediately release the names of U.S. athletes who have tested positive for banned substances. To his credit, USATF CEO Craig Masback has resisted McCaffrey’s latest outrage, although his open letter to the "Drug Czar" certainly demonstrates that McCaffrey is the 800-pound gorilla whose ubiquitous presence cannot be ignored. (Read Masback’s response to McCaffrey.)
Before one goes into the usual song and dance regarding the use of drugs in sports, one needs to remember that sporting federations, including the International Olympic Committee, are private organizations and can set whatever rules of participation that they want. Whether or not their policies are wise is open to debate. However, the matters are often much more complicated in reality than they seem to be on the surface. People like McCaffrey are interested only in the surface issues, which are easily distorted in the media.
In my thinking, the issue of drugs in sports becomes out of control when governments try to become involved, and true to its nature, the U.S. Government has jumped into this donnybrook feet first. McCaffrey has always enjoyed a fight when the odds are heavily in his favor, so it does not seem odd that he would continue to trash what is left of the U.S. Constitution in order to pursue his ridiculous aims of a drug free world.
While the mention of performance enhancing drugs brings to mind the notion of steroid-crazed athletes, the reality of much difference. The case of a Romanian gymnast recently stripped of her gold medal for winning the all-around championships eloquently demonstrates that the concept of drug use is up for much interpretation. The Romanian girl was given an over the counter cold medication by one of her team doctors, medicine that, by the way, is not on any banned listed under the World Gymnastics Federation.
However, the 16-year-old youngster would learn later that the substance she took — which, by the way, provided no competitive advantage for her — was on the IOC’s list of banned substances. While violating the letter of the law, it clearly did not transgress the law’s spirit. Yet, under the prodding of the Barry McCaffreys of sport (including McCaffrey himself) the IOC stripped the child of her hard-earned gold medal even while publicly declaring that the child had not deliberately broken any rules.
In fact, many of the "banned" substances on the IOC list are products that Americans take regularly. People who suffer from asthma use inhalers to help them breathe. Those inhalers contain steroids, and in a number of cases, athletes who have taken medication to alleviate their asthma conditions have found themselves stripped of medals and kicked out of the Olympic Games.
Has any reader ever received a cortisone shot for injury or inflammation? That is a no-no under IOC rules. The list goes on and on, but I think we get the picture. Drugs people take as a matter of course would disqualify us if we were involved in international athletic competition. If we were to follow the McCaffrey standard, then nearly everyone who reads this article would have to find himself or herself listed on the McCaffrey Wall of Shame.
There is no doubt that commonly prescribed drugs, as well as over the counter medications, can be used in a way to either enhance an athlete’s training or game day performance. But there is also much gray area as well, something that does not and cannot fall into the "zero-tolerance" policy that is touted by McCaffrey.
Take C.J. Hunter, the reigning world champion in the shot put (and the husband of Marion Jones, the Olympic winner of the women’s 100 and 200 meter dashes), for example. During recent drug tests, he was found to have very high levels of a banned substance in his bloodstream. However, legal dietary supplements can also cause high steroid levels in the same manner as illegal drugs. There is no way to tell the difference.
Hunter insists that he took no drugs, and that his high testosterone levels have come about as the result of dietary supplements. There is no way to verify his account, but it certainly is believable from a medical point of view. However, given the anti-drug frenzy being whipped up by McCaffrey and the IOC, Hunter has been tried and found guilty by the media present at the Games. (Journalists outnumber athletes by three to one at the Olympics, which means that any "legitimate" news story becomes raw meat for hungry sharks.)
One of the myths being pushed by the IOC, media, and McCaffrey is that drug use is more prevalent and more dangerous than before. As one who competed for a national championship track team (University of Tennessee) in 1974 and who has been close to the track scene for many years, I can say that this proposition is nonsense. While there is no doubt that drug use is a factor in Olympic sports, it had a much greater effect 20 years ago than it does now.
Take the world records in women’s track and field, for example. The 400 and 800-meter records are much lower (47.9, 1:53.4, respectively) than the winning Olympic times of this year. Both records were set in the early 1980s during the heyday of the Communist Bloc. The 400 record holder came from the former East Germany, while the 800 record holder hailed from the former Czechoslovakia. In both cases, the women were later found to be taking large doses of steroids. Other women’s records are similarly tainted, including the 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters, 5,000 meters, and 10,000 meters, all set a decade ago by Chinese women who quickly dropped out of sight when tougher drug standards were announced by the IOC.
Likewise in men’s track and field. When I was in college, sprinters and field event people regularly gobbled steroids like candy. It was an open secret that the best shot putters in the world were taking massive doses of steroids — even as they hotly denied doing so. Many world records were set by men enabled by performance enhancing drugs to throw farther, jump higher, and run faster.
Although it is clear that many of the current records in women’s track and field have been drug enhanced, no effort has been made to clear these records from the books. Some former athletes, however, are seeking justice of another kind. For example, Frank Shorter, who won the Olympic marathon in 1972, took second in the 1976 Olympic marathon to Waldemar Cerpinski from East Germany. It was later documented that Cerpinski received steroids and other drugs from his athletic federation. Shorter is campaigning to have Cerpinski stripped of his gold medal.
One would hope that the IOC would look seriously at Shorter’s demands, as well as having the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) start taking tainted world records off the boards. Instead, we have the IOC boldly yanking the gold medal from a 16-year-old girl who clearly intended to break no rules.
One can and should be outraged by the IOC going after a young child while winking at the situations in which drugs obviously helped determine the Olympic medal winners of the past. But then, the IOC is simply following Barry McCaffrey’s example: go after those who are the weakest and who are least likely to be able to defend themselves.
William L. Anderson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of economics at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.