Drugs and Athletes


Yet another athlete faces hard times because of performance-enhancing drugs. This young man, Justin Gatlin, denies that he knowingly took the drug. He might be telling the truth. Young athletes put a lot of trust in their coaches, and this coach could have given him the drug and told him it was a vitamin.

Gatlin was tied for the world’s record in the 100-meter dash. People in his hometown, Pensacola, Fla., speak highly of him and believe in his innocence. The drug test that was positive, however, might doom him. It seems to me that a mere test should not be sufficient to ruin a career. The officials ought to be required to prove that the athlete knowingly took the stuff.

Years ago, a friend of mine said that testing equipment had far outstripped human knowledge. He said tests could determine chemicals in as small an amount as a part per trillion. The problem is, nobody knows what effect, if any, a chemical in that small a quantity would have on a human being. He was talking about testing water supplies.

It could be, however, that not enough is known about testosterone. Does it really enhance performance? What other sources of the drug are there? What about the chemicals in energy drinks and energy bars? Is the test infallible? Are exact and proper procedures followed?

At any rate, a basic rule of criminal law is that one must prove not only that an act was committed, but that it was committed with criminal intent. If this young man just took what his trainers told him to take and didn’t know that it contained testosterone, he should not be held accountable.

If the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency doesn’t have a procedure to determine this, it should get one. Using testosterone is not a crime, but the penalty for an athlete is severe. If this young man is banned from track-and-field events for eight years, what’s he going to do to make a living in the meantime? How good would he be at age 32, when he’s reinstated?

Performance-enhancing drugs are a form of cheating. I’m generally against the practice. In fact, I get nostalgic about the good old days of amateur athletics, but the effects, I believe, have been exaggerated. They might provide a thin margin to an already superbly conditioned athlete, but they won’t make a star out of a slacker.

One of the ironies of this current obsession with performance-enhancing drugs is that many of the old athletes didn’t train at all. Babe Ruth often spent the night smoking, drinking, eating and carousing with women. He would show up at the ballpark hung over, eat 12 hot dogs and wash them down with six bottles of pop, then waddle out to the plate, his big belly emphasized by his spindly legs, and hit home runs. He had phenomenal eyesight, unusual depth perception, extremely good hand-eye coordination and lightning reflexes. Every one of those was a natural gift. You either have them or you don’t.

The real solution to the drug problem starts with childhood. Americans have to get over this obsession that winning is everything. Children should be taught that there are things more important than winning, such as good behavior, honesty and the satisfaction of playing the game. Parents should teach children to be gracious in both victory and defeat. It is the obsession with winning that often drives young athletes to steroids and other drugs, and nine times out of 10 that obsession comes from demanding parents.

Winning is everything in a gunfight, but sports are just games to be played for enjoyment. It doesn’t really matter who wins as long as both sides have a good time. The old Buddhist saying — Do your best, but don’t worry about the outcome — applies to sports as well as to life in general.

When I covered high-school sports, I had an extremely low opinion of most coaches. They acted like drill instructors and were obsessed with winning. I wouldn’t put up with their abusive barking for one second. One man, however, at a small Catholic high school made sure that every boy who wanted to play football made the team. He made sure everybody got a chance to play. The school had a poor record of wins, but he got my vote as outstanding coach of the year. He alone had the right priorities.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

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