Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

Commentary: Some want to win despite any cost

May 23, 2004

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— Not that many years ago, U.S. Olympic athletes were given an anonymous survey that asked a simple question: If there were a pill that would assure you of winning an Olympic medal but also would shorten your life by five years, would you take it?

Five years. Five years of being among your loved ones, of breathing the air, of staving off the dark abyss that follows. In exchange for a bit of metal and a moment of glory.

It seems a silly question -- and to the athletes, it also seemed that way. Overwhelmingly, they said they would take the pill.

Elite athletes are not like the rest of us. For one thing, they're better athletes. For another, however, those who reach the highest levels of competition -- whether track and field runners, football receivers or baseball sluggers -- are wired to win. They are wired to put the result ahead of the cost, and that is why the best sprinters can run through lung-searing pain, why the best hockey players can ignore the stick-wielding intimidators in their paths, and why the micro-seconds that often define victory willingly are gained only through tedious years of training.

Regrettably, it also is why there are cheaters. The desire to get an edge on the competition is a unchangeable part of the human condition. If people are willing to run a red light to save 30 seconds on the daily commuting race, it's no surprise that athletes whose incomes are determined by their success are willing to cheat, even if it jeopardizes their health. This is unfortunate, but, as with the traffic-light scoffs, all you can do is hire some cops and hope for the best.

The United States Olympic Committee has itself in a tizzy these days because it is committed to sending a "clean" team to the upcoming Summer Games in Athens. The USOC has been only sporadically interested in that goal previously, so the organization is having trouble adjusting to its newfound integrity.

In the past, there was only one way an athlete could be disqualified or kept off the Olympic team when it came to the subject of performance-enhancing drugs. There had to be a positive drug test.

Sometimes, of course, the athletes found a drug that couldn't be detected by a test, or a masking agent that would keep the drug undetected. That would last for a while, then the cops would get wise, then the dirty athletes would move on to some other scam.

But always, it took a positive test for someone to get busted. Otherwise, athletes would be subject to trial by innuendo and hearsay.

Now the USOC and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency want to change the rules a bit, and everyone is in a hurry to do so. The clock is ticking toward the Athens Olympics and there are a number of track standouts still under suspicion because of the ongoing federal investigation of the Balco laboratory that allegedly supplied steroids and other drugs to more than two dozen professional athletes.

The Olympics always have been sold to the corporate world as a patriotic, squeaky-clean enterprise, a feel-good buy for both sides of the transaction. But if all the Kodak moments turn out to have been digitally enhanced -- from a pharmaceutical standpoint -- then a lot of the luster will disappear.

The answer, though, is not a witch hunt or an abrogation of individual rights. If the USOC and the USADA aren't competent enough to nail the cheaters cold, they deserve what they get: a future parade of American heroes being led off with gold medals around their necks and handcuffs around their wrists.

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