OT: The PED Principle--Doping in Modern Sports

Submitted by stephenrjking on May 4th, 2012 at 6:39 PM

Discussion about the dangers of football as it is currently played and the current, unprecedented levels of speed and strength in the game prompted my thoughts on the existence of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in football and other sports. How widespread is doping in major sports?

It used to be that doping was only something "bad guys" did. Ben Johnson. East Germans. Crazy European cyclists. For years I thought that PEDs were a dirty trick that only bad guys would indulge in--my favorite athletes and teams were all good guys and thus ethically incapable of such moral transgression. 

However, Western sports are not immune to performance-enhancing drug use; see baseball, for example. When Jose Canseco threw syringes at every significant baseball player of the 90s I piled on baseball as a sport and arrogantly checked off a box on my list of reasons why football is superior to other sports. After all, the NFL tests for drugs!

I was being naive. In truth, I already knew better: The BALCO scandal shockingly revealed that the most sophisticated PEDs were invisible to contemporary tests. An athlete could dope wihout any limitation and never test positive. This inherent flaw in drug testing was and is a big deal; the most determined dopers are capable of defeating whatever tests are in place.

Lance Armstrong never tested positive. He won 7 Tours de France in a row, an unmatched  record in cycling. I actively rooted him on, roping me into the small world of cycling fandom. Interesting fact you might not have known: virtually every cyclist that he shared a podium with from 1999-2006 was linked with doping (the lone exception was Fernando Escartin, placing third in 1999). That means that Lance beat riders that were actively cheating every year. Either he was also enhancing his performance... or it is the greatest athletic feat of all time. 

I liked Lance. Accepting the possibility that he may have cheated was a difficult conclusion for me to draw. And that led me to an important conclusion about us as sports fans: We do not recognize the breadth of PED use in sports because we are asking the wrong question.

When we consider the possibility of PED use, what we want to do is ask ourselves whether or not we think someone would use it. We ask this about our favorite athletes: Would Steve Yzerman dope? Of course not! He's such a great guy. (This is still my actual position). We ask that about other athletes, too; people generally think Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. managed to get through the steroid era without juicing, and there may be good reason for that. However, I think this belief is at least partly held because people think highly of Jeter and Griffey as individuals.

That is part of the reason that so many people find it so easy to accept that Barry Bonds juiced at the end of his career: we don't like him. Sure, Goodyear recruited his head to join their blimp fleet, but he's a jerk, a villain; of course he'll dope.

But this is the wrong question. We take an incomplete understanding of the character of an athlete and, based on our conclusion of their behavior, make a wider judgment about the status of sports as a whole. "Barry Sanders wouldn't dope, therefore doping isn't a big deal in football, probably just a few bad apples."

But we don't understand the character of most athletes. In truth, a successful athlete is almost certainly driven by a level of competitiveness most of us will never comprehend. The drive to win, to succeed, to prove oneself to detractors, to get better, to achieve, is remarkable. That's what compels Kobe Bryant to  spend hours in the gym before and after practice perfecting his shot. That's what compels Peyton Manning to spend hours and hours each week studying film--in the offseason. Victory. Success. Winning.

And individuals who seek to win will, often, go to any length available to succeed. Slightly late hits after the whistle. A whack at the hands at the base of a jump shot. A stick in the shins when the ref looks the other way. A rub of a dirty hand before a pitch.

PEDs can increase strength. They can increase speed. They can increase endurance (cyclists don't use anabolic steroids, but directly alter their blood chemistry to increase their cardiovascular efficiency to astonishing levels). What are sports if not tests for speed, strength, and endurance? PEDs can give a soccer player the endurance to win a corner in the 87th minute, a baseball player the extra length on a fly ball to hit a home run, or a running back the extra kick to make it to the second level. A basketball player gets extra height on their way to the basket, a hockey player recovers quicker for the next playoff game, a swimmer has the extra wattage to win at the wall. 

If you want to know if there are PEDs in use in a sport, just figure out if their is a tangible benefit to them. Football, a game of speed and power, clearly benefits from PEDs. Baseball, where power hitting and power pitching are million-dollar attributes, also benefits. Cycling, swimming, distance running, soccer, and even tennis are sports where endurance can make the difference between winning and losing; they benefit. Basketball? Strength and particularly speed. Hockey? Strength and speed. 

"But wait," you say. "Nobody in the NBA/NHL/EPL has tested positive." There are drugs known to beat tests, and sophisticated doping programs are brilliant at evading detection. If a sport has not had any positive tests, that doesn't mean nobody is doing it. In my opinion, that means a lot of people are doing it, and nobody has been caught. 

I've settled on a principle for determining whether or not I think there is doping in a sport. The PED principle. I use it for my own opinion only, as much for a protection against future disappointment as anything else. It allows me to appreciate a sport, recognize the potential problems, and enjoy the athletes or teams I like without having to worry myself asking "Is so-and-so doping?"

The PED principle is this:

If there is a benefit to PEDs in a sport, athletes will use them. Unless the risk of consequences outweighs the benefits, many will do it. If I hold it against one sport, I must hold it against all of them... or none of them.



May 4th, 2012 at 10:57 PM ^

the length athletes will go to get ahead and turn a blind eye to consequence. Even in the 90's and late 80's when I was enrolled in the Kines program, the part where you actually took 500 level motor learning and biomechanics classes not rec management =) we studied the impact and effects of 290# linemen running low 5.x 40 yard dash and what that size/speed ratio meant to bone and muscle structure. Stuff like Creatine hadn't even become mainstream logic at that point. Even now as I teach middle school health this is one of the things we really break down as a Pandora's box. Steroid for an asthmatic in metered dose can be a lifesaving tool. At a rate 10 to 1000 times the medical protocol, it turns an above average athlete into a workhorse who can recover at remarkable rate and become superhuman. 

I've always seen the moral side of the issue and refused ANY and all discussion of it's use as a PED.  Pretty much as the Diary states, when you know an athlete is 'juiced' credibility is lost. I couldn't deal with that aspect of it even beyond the chemical, biological/ethical side of things. Knowing it wasn't REAL and earned seemed cheap. Unfortunately now we have linemen in the 300+ club approaching absurd sub 5 numbers with more force, more violence, more risk of career ending injury. We are just now seeing some of the effects with recent light shed on the loss of Junior Seau. He played in an era where PED was still taboo but gaining social norm to a point. Considering the conversation on potential impact from severe concussive trauma and depression, knowing the size, speed, and violence of his career compared to the numbers now, I can only fear what type of human stew we will create from players ten years down the road. Sorry for the long rant, but this topic is pretty sensitive to me.


May 5th, 2012 at 1:41 AM ^

The moral issue informs the ethical one. One must merely ask the question: What if we allowed doping? The answer, unfortunately, is that people would do terrible things to their bodies to succeed, worse than they already do. The negative physical and mental health effects of steroid abuse are striking and fatal (in the case of Chris Benoit, fatal for those around you as well). Epo abuse in cycling led to an epidemic of deaths from heart attack due to unnaturally thick blood. Additionally, the boosted performance makes the athletes notably more dangerous on the field.

Thus doping cannot be moral, and to require it to be competitive (which is what happens if it is not enforced) is unethical. But it all comes from the moral side of it.


May 5th, 2012 at 5:48 AM ^

It's not just that PEDs allow players to get bigger and faster, thus resulting in greater injuries, including concussions, many of the PEDs themselves carry serious long term side effects.  The elephant in the room that few want to acknowledge is that  abusing PEDs, such as steroids, especially long term and at high levels, can lead to serious problems even after the abuse has stopped, including psychological problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts.


May 5th, 2012 at 8:24 AM ^

I feel the same about Lance. I was drawn in to his success and really rooted for him during his success. A lot of Europeans had their suspicions early on which I thought were baseless. Now given all evidence regarding the riders he beat and testimony from his teammates, it's hard to imagine a scenario he didn't dope. To me, I now see Lance in the same context as Bonds, a man who accomplished great things but whose records comes with an big asterisk (written or unwritten).

snarling wolverine

May 5th, 2012 at 11:41 AM ^

There are rumblings that doping in soccer is a bigger problem that anyone wants to let on.  In a sport where players may run the equivalent of 6-7 miles a game, and in which only three substitutes are permitted, and where the season is incredibly long, you can see where someone might try to strengthen his endurance.

Part of the moral debate here has to center on the fact that a lot of these sports turn a blind eye to the use.  In soccer, for instance, I don't think there is much, if any, drug testing, so players may figure that they have nothing to lose.  When the decision to use or not use PEDs comes down to basically the honor system, discouraging players from using them is a tougher argument to make.   Testing standards need to be firmer.  If three substitutes isn't enough for soccer, change the rules to allow more.  


May 5th, 2012 at 5:42 PM ^

I think soccer is way dirty. Testimony from certain cycling dopers indicates that "prominent soccer stars" we're involved in the same dirt cyclists were. There are serious cardio benefits to EPO and blood doping, and if it's not seriously screened for then it is almost certainly epidemic.

I still enjoy watching soccer; I just don't hold any illusions about how clean it is.


May 5th, 2012 at 8:53 PM ^

Nope. Cycling has a remarkably thorough "blood passport" program that is unmatched anywhere. It should be noted that it needs this with its (deservedly) tainted reputation and that even with this it's not perfect. Things are a lot cleaner than they used to be, though, and there is hard data in the form of mountain time splits that points to a much cleaner sport.

Even those who wish to cheat find their benefit greatly reduced; the system's rigorous analysis of the levels of blood components means that any doping benefits are small--the large benefits would set off red flags.

Puerto testimony all indicated that "major tennis stars" we're seen in the Fuentes offices, and you can guess who I think that means.

The problem is that sports (including cycling) have a greater incentive to sweep cheating under the rug than to expose it and hurt the brand. Baseball only got real when things became absurd. The NBA and the NHL have never had a major scandal and have no desire for there to be one.

Soccer has the added problem of competing national federations influencing decisions. Spain, for example, has demonstrated willingness to overlook doping in several sports to reap the benefits from success. What motive does England have to ramp up enforcement of the resulting crackdown will take out two or three top players from the national team and top clubs when they're competing against dirty players anyway?

In sports doping, ignorance is bliss.


May 5th, 2012 at 2:59 PM ^

People doping in high school level is something that no one seems to want to talk about.  I played varsity sports at a division 4 school and several of my teammates used PED's.  Most of them got scholarships at the college level.  I even had a teammates parent approach me about them.


May 6th, 2012 at 2:29 PM ^

My brother got me into watching cycling when I was a kid and I have watched every tour since right after Miguel Indurain's reign. I also grew up in the Bay Area and Barry Bonds was the only reason I became a baseball fan, and Miguel Tejada was my other favorite player.  After paying attention to the BALCO scandal and cycling, I know far too much about PED's. 

You are right about cycling, everyone Lance beat was doping their minds out and Lance's teammates have said he demanded they dope, There was Tyler Hamilton's accusation of the fridge full of blood, and Floyd Landis' claims of the team doping.  Of course these two guys were caught red-handed and thus had incentive to lie about Lance's PED use, and both were banned from international competition (with Landis getting his Tour title stripped). It must be noted that the French Government and European Press did everything within their power to catch Lance.  The US government investigated Lance for improper use of government funds, as using US Postal Service sponsor dollars to fund and cover up his alleged doping would have been a serious felony, and found nothing. But of course the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence and so forth.

Doping in cycling is unique as you stated it's not about increasing muscle mass, it's about carrying more oxygen in your blood which is what the PED EPO is designed to do (what Lance is most accused of taking). They even had to ban Viagra as a PED because it dilates artieries and allows better blood flow at higher elevations (very useful when you climb the highest mountain in europe on a bicycle. So Lance was either a freak of nature who used his battle with cancer to motivate himself to ingore pain, and to never stop pedaling, or he is the greatest cheater of all time. I prefer the former.


May 6th, 2012 at 3:38 PM ^

I don't see why it has to be EITHER he was a freak of nature OR he was a cheater.  He won during an era of rampant cheating, so even if he was doping he still beat competitors on an even playing field.  Same with Bonds.  I have no problem with acknowleding that those two were extraordinary athletes with world-surpassing skills, who were probably cheating as they beat the world's best cheaters.

We tend to think of PED-fueled accomplishments as unearned, when in fact, PEDs allow athletes to work harder and train more rigorously.  This means that in a PED-soaked environment, these athletes are still outworking and outtraining their counterparts, as well as benefitting from the best genetic gifts they could possibly receive--and in this sense their achievements are well earned.  I could dope all day long and not compete with these athletes, because I am a) not genetically gifted enough to take advantage of the PEDs, and b) too damn lazy to put them to best use.  The same goes for 99.99% of atheles, so when Lance and Barry emerge at the top of their respective pyramids, they are still deserving winners.  However, in denying PED use repeatedly, they are probably lying liars of the dishonest sort.


May 6th, 2012 at 4:51 PM ^

...unlike perhaps other major US sports, doping in cycling isn't a new phenomenon (the sport's first PED related death is said to have occurred in 1897).  I take it from much of the baseball commentary is that the accomplishments of Bonds, McGwire, et al are offensive because their work is only great in context of others who ostensibly didn't cheat.  

Within cycling, it's harder to look ascance at Lance as someone who used an innovation that wasn't available to his predecessors: Coppi and Anquetil admitted doping.  Merckx tested positive multiple times.  And as you say, among his contemporaries, nearly all have been sanctioned for doping violations.


May 6th, 2012 at 8:50 PM ^

The only problem with that argument, is that it erases the historical significance of the athletes accomplishments. In cycling, one could argue equipment has had a greater influence on records falling throughout the sports history. In baseball, though, that is harder to prove. In baseball we can argue about the live vs dead ball eras, segregation, year-round training, franchise expansion and  the distance of outfield fences, but we are still talking about hitting a wound leather ball with a wooden bat.

Essentially, steroids cheapen the feats from bygone eras, especially in a sport like baseball that is largely still the same.


May 7th, 2012 at 5:16 PM ^

I competed against an athlete who was wide open juicing...so blatantly that he would ask other teams/coaches for any advice on doping efficiently and cycling the drugs to the most effective levels.  At one point he had to lay off of them as he neared levels of competition (NCAA championships) where random testing would potentially catch him and cause embarrassment to his coach/team. The year he cycled down, he went from being a top level performer to an athletic embarassment. It was REMARKABLE how much difference there was in his drive and attitude. You honestly couldn't fathom it without seeing it. And as to comments made earlier about long term physiological/social/psychological effects, the evidence on those remarks honestly isn't concrete. Granted EXCESSIVE ammounts of any substance can have profound health effect but steroid use has largely been blown out of proportion. Think about it this way, with the acknowledgement of Bonds et. al and the 'juiced' era of sports, how many of those athletes have died, gone through depression, or had lasting effect from steroid overload? Not to mention those in bodybuilding etc. I'm by NO MEANS supporting steroid use and I honestly use the tool of 'bad things man bad things happen' with regard to discouraging young athletes in the use of PED, but there really isn't a lot of evidence, substantial evidence to show PED is long term harmful. Plenty of people who've nver played a sport in their life suffer from depression...it's not exclusive to PED overload. Just something to think about. Great documentary 'BIGGER FASTER STRONGER' that really explores the culture of ROIDs..check it out if you get bored. Again I worked my tail off as a 100% clean athlete, proud of what I accomplished and wouldn't change the outcomes for ANYTHING. But the mystique of steroid/PED use is often overshadowed by misnomers on the effects and use.

snarling wolverine

May 7th, 2012 at 9:08 PM ^

One problem with the "everyone does it" argument is that PEDs affect different people differently.  Some people's bodies don't respond to them for whatever reason, while others see an unusually strong benefit.  It could be that Lance Armstrong's body responded particularly well to the PEDs and that gave him the edge he needed.  We can't be certain that if the entire peleton was clean that they would have finished in the exact same order.



May 7th, 2012 at 8:53 AM ^

I'd like to see two sets of Olympics - one in which every athlete is vigorously tested for doping, and one in which they can use whatever they want (doping, PEDs, etc.). Provide licensed doctors to consult the athletes to ensure that they aren't misusing, but otherwise use whatever means necessary to test the limits of the human body.

French West Indian

May 9th, 2012 at 2:10 PM ^

The cynic in me has always assumed that he was doping because everybody else in the sport was doing it.

On the other hand, I will concede that there is a narrow possibility that he is clean just because cycling isn't the most accessible sport.  With those fancy & expensive bicycles, there's just not many kids growing up and going into cycling.  Especially top athletes who are going to be steered to sports like basketball and football (both the American and the soccer variety).  So I suppose that it is possible that an exceptional athlete could dominate a sport like cycling the way that Armstrong has.  But I'm still inclined to assume that he was doping.  It just makes more sense.


May 9th, 2012 at 3:16 PM ^

Your logic isn't bad at all, but I do think you have to look at where the majority of other cyclists come from as well, notably Europe and South America. Obviously soccer and football are still bigger sports in most of these countries, but I do believe cycling is taken a lot more seriously and followed a lot more closely in other places than the US, meaning it is all the more unlikely that Armstrong was clean and simply dominated based on superior "American" athleticism. I would say the chances he was clean are around the .01% range.


September 16th, 2012 at 5:50 PM ^

The public never hears the results of testing in college for PEDs.

As I understand it, while the NCAA tests for PEDs in tournaments, for the most part testing is left up to the individual school.  And I don't know about any testing in high schools.

So when you see a physically huge and dominant team like 2012 Alabama, should'nt the average fan at least think about the possibility that those giants are juicing?

Was it not obvious when we looked at Jim Mandarich, Barry Bonds, Roger Clements, et al?

I say it is obvious when I look at these monstrous athletes who are bigger, faster, stronger.  This is not the result of Sabin being a better coach.  It is not genetics.  It is not demographics.  It is not recruiting.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, call it what it is and let the chips fall where they may.

Remember how much money is being spent on college football.