Once, records were made to be broken. Now, records are made to be doubted.
Sports' steroids era has calloused whatever sense of innocence we once attached to athletes and their accomplishments. Our sense of wonder has been replaced by a cynical wondering:
Who can we believe? What can we trust?
Athletes who are clean and drug-free are cheated of the benefit of doubt. Sports and leagues are cheated of public trust, their records rewritten by scandal. And fans are cheated of the escape sports once provided, back before the story went from feel-good to not feeling quite right.
Dara Torres, swimmer, dominated the recent U.S. Olympic trials at age 41, setting records, astoundingly defeating women half her age. This after returning from a six-year layoff, after having a child, after knee and shoulder surgeries within the past eight months.
This makes hers one of the most remarkable stories in sports history, yet appreciation is guarded, and given with caution, because we wonder if anything artificial has enhanced her performance. (How could it not, we hear ourselves thinking).
Caught in the middle is where the steroids era has left us. We feel guilty to be suspicious without cause. But we would feel naive - like we hadn't learned our lesson - to blindly believe.
Doubt casts a wide net. It might include Rafael Nadal winning Wimbledon with bulging biceps such as tennis has never seen. Might be sprinter Tyson Gay pulling up with a hamstring injury last weekend and an inner voice reminding how much strain steroids places on tendons and muscles. Might be somebody out there who can hardly believe Dan Uggla is among the big-league home run leaders.
Nadal, Gay and Uggla are not implicated in steroid use in any way, yet there is suspicion by association.
Is it wrong of us to think like that? No, it is not.
"It is a perfectly understandable reaction," University of Miami ethicist Dr. Kenneth Goodman told us Thursday. "Steroid use is so erosive of trust that when someone does very well, we're looking at it with our heads cocked. Every record that's set now, every great accomplishment, makes you wonder. And we shouldn't have to wonder. It's worse than sad."
We can believe, intellectually or hopefully, that the vast majority of athletes are clean, but it doesn't always help. As Goodman said, "Even a drop of a pollutant in the water makes everyone drinking from that well worried the whole thing's gone bad."
Experience hardens us. Some wounds heal, but leave permanent scars.
"It will never return to the way it was," University of Texas professor and sports-doping expert John Hoberman told the Los Angeles Times - meaning how we look at sports' great feats. "The last 10 years have changed the public mind-set. Now, really, there are very few athletes you can believe 100 percent."
Our greatest challenge in the steroids era is to resist cynicism, and to be as generous with our benefit of doubt as we once were with our unmitigated adulation.
We can give it our best try, but there is a small sign now in the window of our fan's soul, a small sign we see flashing with every astonishing performance and every record that falls. The sign reads: