In every sport, there are landmark feats which provide a benchmark of excellence against which others are compared, defining greatness, cultivating legends and providing the inspiration for children to take up the sporting flame for a new generation.
But we live in an era when the fastest man in the world, the champion of the toughest and most gruelling cycling race on earth and the celebrated figures of many, many sports have forever tarnished their own reputation and that of their life’s achievements through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In the modern era, sporting greatness immediately arouses suspicions of ‘drug cheats’ at work.
Once upon a time, we could have fooled ourselves into believing that such practices were alien to the Irish sporting culture- the experience of celebrating Olympic Gold medals in 1996 and 2004 which were subsequently stripped or devalued due to suspicions or actual use of banned substances have put paid to that.
The answer of how to deal with the all pervasive drug culture continues to evade sporting bodies, who perhaps once could have been forgiven for naivety or incompetence, but who today are soberly engaged in a technological battle to keep up-to-date with the drug cheats.
Americans were the first to bring statistics into the sporting arena, with stats for every possible action on the sporting field (we can thank Sky Sports for bringing football up to par in that regard.) But the greatest record of them all in American sports- and that which brought international recognition to the legendary baseball figure, Babe Ruth– is on the verge of being broken this week. The problem, of course, is that the new record holder is strongly suspected of being a drug cheat.
Barry Bonds, like so many baseball sluggers of his generation, has been alleged to have been using steroids during his baseball career, linked with the now infamous BALCO scandal. A plea bargain deal prevented the full details emerging from the case, but enough information has leaked out to implicate Bonds and many others.
During his career he has amassed an incredible 754 Home Runs to date and broken many other records in the process. The all-time Home Run record is 755 Home Runs, held by Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth’s 714 Homers in 1974.
The pursuit of the Record has divided America and provoked much discussion about how to judge the achievements of Barry Bonds and those of many others who have been found/ suspected to have been using steroids throughout what was naively believed to have been the halcyon days for Home Run hitting in the 1990s (other ‘greats’ residing beneath dark clouds of suspicion today from what is now referred to as the ‘Steroid Era’ include Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, whose status in Baseball would be akin to Thierry Henry, Christiano Ronaldo and Frank Lampard today in English soccer.)
Sport has changed, and changed utterly.