The Allure of Greatness: Drugs in Athletics

By: David Jankowski

Source: flickr/Sarah Fagg

Athletics is an international language. The Olympic Games were born of diplomatic and political design and provide a platform for international cooperation and peaceful competition. The athletes who compete in those games, the men and women who rise above reality, force their bodies and minds to achieve physical feats unimaginable to the common Joe. Those who stand in the arena, sacrificing their bodies for the entertainment of the crowd and the ever alluring quest for greatness. Exalted beyond the level of mere mortals, they live by the Olympic motto Faster – Higher – Stronger.”  However international love for athletics is not about the entertainment, but what the feats represent.

Athletes are a modern day personification of the American Dream. Athletes prove to us that hard work and perseverance are rewarded with success and indescribable glory. The demi-gods of the arena deserve our praise, they are the embodiment of national ethos and are proof that our nation’s methods are the best. Athletes struggle through barriers and despite all odds rise to levels that inspire. At times we are compelled to tears as vicariously watch their trials, their tribulations, and their triumphs. Athletes remind us that life is not about the falls but the rise. They are a glimpse at what we all have the potential to be, champions in all aspects of life.

This is why we distain the cheaters so viscerally. They undercut the system by artificially bolstering their abilities at the expense of those who worked tirelessly to get there. But dopers don’t just cheat their competitors, they strip us of our Dream and sully our ethos. They are the embodiment of all that is wrong with the system. They steal deserved glory from the pure competitors who have worked a lifetime to achieve amazing feats, because glory loses its meaning when it is achieved without the effort.

Cheating is not unique to the modern era of athletics. It is as old as the Ancient Olympics (776BC-393BC) when competitors would create herbal concoctions and drink opium juices to delay fatigue and improve pain tolerance. Olympic scholar, William Blake Tyrell claims that for ancient competitors, “Winning was everything. If they thought a rhinoceros horn would help them win, they would have ground it up.” The ancient Olympics were the only beginning. Just considering the past 30 years, we have seen a myriad of doping scandals: the stripping of Canadian Ben Johnson’s 1988 gold medal and 100m world record days after the race, the 1998 Homerun Chase artificially propped by steroid use, Congressional hearings on doping, and the seven Tour de France titles of infamous cheater Lance Armstrong. Drug cheats aren’t just limited to North America. There have been recent scandals in Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, Jamaica, Kenya, Oman, Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uruguay to name a few. But, we all know (or at least believe) that the purest athlete will come out ahead. Against all odds the scrupulous will rise above the cheaters, because hard work and scruples are rewarded with well-deserved glory!

The condemnation of drug cheats is easy. They deserve their punishments, strip them of titles, and ban them from competition. We create profound lists of banned substances through the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and domestic anti-doping agencies (USADA, UKAD, JADA, RUSADA) to ensure fair and equitable competition and protect the pure competitors. Despite all our efforts, the allure of cheating persists.

Is there no decency in sport? Is our vision blurred? What would compel these degenerates to such theft? These questions haunted me as I climbed through the athletic ranks from high school, to college, and into the professional ranks.  But as I rose, I saw the allure. I witnessed the draw and learned a disheartening truth that I ignored for years: the best cheat. It was, and is, logically inescapable. I want to make it clear, I know not all Olympians are drug cheats, but you may be hard pressed to find a medalist who is clean.

You should rightly wonder why I am so sure of this. Think of it this way, 77 of the 100 top-ten finishers in the Tour de France between 1998 and 2007 have tested positive, admitted to doping, or are strongly suspected of doping. If 77% of the athletes finishing in the top ten of the Tour are drug cheats, what is the probability that the other 23% are clean? The old argument for Lance Armstrong was that he worked that much harder and was that much more motivated than the rest of the field of athletes. Perhaps the remaining 23% are just the hardest working athletes in their sport. To test that let’s look at the influence of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) on endurance performance.

Let me walk you through it using myself as an example. In my career, I never used a banned substance. I was a national Club XC Champion and competed for multiple US Track & Field (USATF) international teams. But let’s look at my career if I had used, based on studies of the performance enhancing effect of solely Erythropoietin more commonly known as EPO.

EPO is a hormone that our kidneys and liver produce naturally, aside from some of its healing properties EPO has the ability to increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the body’s red blood cells. Basically, increased oxygen allows a body to run longer and faster by better oxygenating muscle fibers. Combined with elite training EPO has a profound performance-boosting effect, for my example I’ll use the estimates of between 3% and 6% on performance. Even a micro-doping regimen has returns of 2-3% to athletic performance.

To provide perspective, let’s get a background of US Track & Field. Consider success in track & field to be making an Olympic team. To qualify for an Olympic team in the US you must not only finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials, but also attain a World Entry Standard in the 12 months leading up to the Olympic Games. The World Entry Standards for the 5k and 10k are 13:25 and 28:00 respectively. My bests while competing were 13:40 and 28:14. Under an EPO regime my 5k would drop between 24.6 and 49.2 seconds and my 10k between 50.8 and 101.6 (1:41.6) seconds. Even on the low end estimate, EPO use could have propelled my performance to well under the Olympic Entry Standards, and in the case of the 10k, in the realm of medal contenders (26:32.4-27:23.2). The fastest 10k estimate would have made me the 6th fastest runner in world history. I was a good runner, but if tests of EPO are remotely accurate, I may have been one of the all-time greats. And that’s just using EPO, no synthetic cocktail of complimentary PEDs created by a team of specialized pharmacologists.

It is important to note, I am not the most talented or hardest working athlete that I know. Many national and international runners who are far more gifted and work harder than I did. But these numbers should illustrate one thing: drugs can make good athletes become great and great athletes become unbeatable. Although I believe the studies are a bit on the high side for their performance enhancing estimates of EPO, If more than half of the world-class field is doping, receiving performance gains of even 2% (assuming they only use EPO), our original 23% of unproven cheats at the Tour de France field would need to be beyond super-human. This doesn’t mean a few don’t exist, but the likelihood is low. While this demonstrates how endemic PEDs may be, it more importantly illustrates the allure of PEDs.

Like Lance Armstrong said, “everyone is doing it” and if everyone is doing it is it cheating? More importantly for the clean athlete, it is beyond disheartening to come to this realization that your career is limited by the PED ceiling. If you want to compete, you’ll have to cheat. You have a choice, take the pill and become the athlete you have trained and yearned to become, or hold onto your integrity but never be truly competitive.

Beyond the appeal of individual glory, athletics also produce massive financial returns that incentivize competitors to that moral hazard. It is difficult not to be compelled to cheat when the difference between first and fifth at the Boston Marathon is $135,000 and the best athletes receive six-figure appearance fees. This doesn’t even consider more mainstream sports that have league minimum salaries of $435,000 in the National Football League (NFL), $490,000 in the National Basketball Association (NBA), and $507,500 in Major League Baseball (MLB). These sums of money put a price tag on an athlete’s integrity as the difference between making a roster and working a post-collegiate job can be in the ballpark of $400,000.

The onus is not all on the athletes for wanting glory, nor the managers for paying large salaries. It is on the spectator who demands breakout performances, bigger hits, farther homeruns, faster times, and higher jumps. The spectator requires the athlete to become bigger, faster, and stronger than is humanly possible. Just look at the evolution of the NFL’s offensive linemen. In the 1960s the average lineman was under 250 pound, but by 2011 only 28 of the league’s 170 linemen were under 300 pounds. Recent years have seen advocates for just this, a lifting of all drug bans from sports.

Fans want to feel the thrill of competition and to see real life Goliaths compete in the arena and then pretend that those characteristics are self-made champions of the American Dream. They cheer on champions, they require success and will settle for nothing less. Fans breed these ideals into their children. Ricky Bobby understood, “If you’re not first, you’re last!” Though, so fickle, the fan discards the cheater who is caught and chastises the unscrupulous behavior of the athlete, then blindly cheers on the next in a line of artificial supermen and women.

I love competition and the thrill of challenging your mind and body to do things that you never believed you were capable of; however, elite athletics have left me exhausted and dismayed by the business of sport. After watching people I knew and trusted be caught for using PEDs, I lost my last shreds of faith in clean and pure athletics. No matter the cause, whether the fans, greed, or vanity, drugs should remain illegal. Sports are about the quest for glory, the journey toward something great. Failure should not merely be judged on your medal count, but the way you have overcome adversity.

Sports are an extension of our society and, for me, the troubling use of PEDs to cheat your way to the apex of athletics (and people justifying these practices) cast a shadow of skepticism over all kinds of success. Everyone cheats, whether we are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a stay at home parent. We fudge a number to help our child get into a better class, we pretend like we didn’t notice that text message to avoid having dinner with the Joneses. But our cheating is fairly minor and no one really gets hurt. Plus, the end justifies the means. We’re not like those greedy and unscrupulous athletes! But next time you make a decision consider it through the lens of your athletic ideals. If your every choice were scrutinized to test your scruples, would you pass the PED test?

As cynical as my conclusion seems, I believe it is an opportunity to make myself and others better. We have an opportunity to make the choice. So tomorrow, as Morpheus stands before you holding out the red pill that leads to glory and riches, or the blue pill that makes your career disappear into relative obscurity, how will you choose? Will you allow your choice to define your potential? The choice is ours.

10996559_10102514738376102_2584848218111765962_nDavid is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. He is a former professional athlete with a passion for diplomatic relations, international trade, and international athletics. Contact David with any questions, comments or opportunities:

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