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Archive for Thursday, July 13, 2006

Commentary: Fans looking for elusive Mr. Clean

July 13, 2006

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— This is one of those tree-falling-in-the-forest questions: If it weren't for the possibility of a drug scandal, would the Tour de France make a sound?

Or, to put it another way, haven't the innuendoes and accusations become more of a spectator sport than the bicycle race itself?

When we watch the replays of the latest Tour stage, we wait patiently for the results - of the race, of the testing, of the latest investigation. We wait for a defrocked personal trainer to be arrested with some mysterious salve near the border of France and Italy. We wait for syringes to turn up in a dumpster near where a team has spent a night. We wait for Lance Armstrong to issue a denial - and he's retired.

We can snicker a bit about all of that because most of us Americans have no emotional investment in the Tour - other than in Armstrong, and some of us think it very wise to keep our distance from him. He dominated a sport that is absolutely rife with chemical cheating. (You might want to take a gander at a Sunday Los Angeles Times story built around sworn testimony from a recent legal dispute involving Armstrong. Not too pretty a picture of old Lance.)

But there's no room to laugh at anyone because performance-enhancing drugs are everywhere - pick a sport, any sport. Think about this: Football, of all sports, has managed to avoid real scrutiny.

If you want to see grotesquely large, superhero human beings, take a look at the NFL. No, officer. No drug use here. Just naturally bred, 350-pound linemen.

From 1989-2005, the NFL suspended 54 players for positive tests involving performance-enhancing drugs. If you believe that only three or four players a year are using steroids in the NFL, you're either commissioner Paul Tagliabue or hopelessly naive.

It's almost as if we expect drugs in football or, more, we would be disappointed if the sport weren't leading the way in cutting-edge cheating. Maybe it just shows that the American public simply doesn't care if its heroes have more than red blood coursing through their veins.

I don't want to believe that.

What keeps us watching? Again, for some of you, it doesn't matter that drugs have infiltrated the games you love. You have accepted cheating as the price of watching the best athletes in the world do their thing. Sammy Sosa corked his bat. Some of you shrugged in response.

The ideal of sport is what keeps the rest of us going, as quaint and hokey as it is. The ideal is that sports are supposed to bring out the best in everyone.

And so we hold on to these games and keep hoping against hope it will get better.

We would like to know what pure competition would look like, as it was before the original sin of steroid use was committed.

It's why a movie like "Field of Dreams" was so popular. It was a story partly based on cheating (the 1919 Black Sox) but mostly on purity, on the idea of an unfettered game of baseball in a cornfield. Simple and clean.

It would be easy to quit watching sports. The cheaters are ahead of the testers, as they always will be. There's too much money to be made by the participants, and there's too much ego.

But we cling to the belief that perfection is possible. We're suckers for the idea of a Mr. Clean. We want to believe he's out there, playing by the rules.

Maybe our infatuation with perfection is part of the problem.

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