Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bicycle Built for Two


Floyd Landis, the winner of the just completed Tour de France, has apparently tested positive for high levels of testosterone during the race. The results of his tests show elevated levels of testosterone after his remarkable comeback in stage 17 of the race. Landis, who was basically written off after falling 8 minutes behind the leader after the 16th stage, pulled off a remarkable comeback the next day and cut the lead to :30 seconds. His ride was hailed as the greatest one day feat in the history of the event. Now it appears that it was done with the help of an illegal performance enhancing drug(PED).

The sport of cycling has been fraught with allegations of doping for years. Lance Armstrong, the seven time winner of the Tour de France, has never been able to escape from doping allegations. After his improbable comeback from cancer, there have been stories circulating about his drug use. He has never tested positive for anything and he is one of the most tested athletes in history. Before the start of this years Tour, nine riders, including the two pre race favorites were banned from the race after being implicated in a Spanish doping probe. Now the winner of Tour has been caught up in a doping scandal as well.

Outside of Ben Johnson, I've never heard one athlete who was caught for doping, actually admit to doing anything illegal or immoral. I've heard a lot of talk about cough medicines and birth control pills and asthma medications and over the counter supplements and B-12 shots, but never do they just say, "Okay, I did it" (well, except for Jason Giambi and he did that in front of a Grand Jury with a promise of immunity from prosecution from the government). Elite athletes are always looking for something to help separate themselves from the competition and in this day and age, a lot of times that means any legal or illegal method available. And if not illegal, at least immoral.

What price does sports pay for this type of problem. For years, under the old soviet bloc system, athletes were forced to take "supplements" which turned out to be steroids. You only had to look at the East German "women's" swimming team in those days to know that something was going on. Cheating has always existed in sports, whether it's stealing signs in baseball or trying to draw a foul in soccer by pretending to be hurt. However, cheating has a much higher level at this point. The problem with cheating in sports is that it then forces the very elite athletes to also cheat in order to stay on top. The idealistic "level playing field" just doesn't exist anymore. Would Barry Bonds have taken steroids if not for Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire? Would McGwire and Sosa have taken steroids if opposite field home runs hadn't starting flying off the bats of middle infielders? I bet that they wouldn't have felt the need to. Barry is an ass, but I'm sure that until he saw what his competition was doing to excel, he never gave it a second thought.

I don't believe that the steroid problem affects kids nearly as much as is talked about in the press. Kids aren't stupid. They know what can happen if they take steroids. Kids take steroids for the same reason adults do, they want to get a leg up on the competition. They don't take them because Barry Bonds took them. So the price of elite athletes taking steroids is not a generation of steroid taking kids emulating their heroes, the price is borne by sport itself. The last ten years of baseball will forever be known as the "steroid era". Cycling can't seem to get away from the steroid problem. Many of the Olympic track and field events have been tainted by the PED issue.

Athletes who take PED's not only do potential damage to their bodies, but they do harm to the sport that they compete in. And sometimes that harm is irreparable. However, I don't think that it's a major societal issue. I don't think it says anthing particularly damning about us as a society except that, people will do anything to get ahead. But that's really nothing new. Trying to get a leg up on the competition is basically what every capitalist nation is built on. Perhaps the problem is that we hold our athletes up to a higher standard than we are willing to conform to. Immoral and sometimes illegal business practices are the norm in our society. People who are able to circumvent the system are seen as pioneers and savy business people. Our athletes who are caught trying to do the same are treated like leppers.

It's a shame that Landis is now the latest figure to get his name tainted by this ongoing PED scandal. The thing is that even if he is later cleared of this wrong doing, his name is going to be forever linked with steroids. He's tainted for life. If this allegation proves to be true, then the Tour de France will always have the shadow hanging over it of having awarded it's champions jersey to someone who cheated to get it.

Perhaps it was a naive thought on our part that our athletes were somehow better people just becuase they are able to run faster and jump higher. But the truth is that they aren't better people, they're just people. No better or worse. Cheating goes on in life and it goes on in sports. It always has and it always will.

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