A Modern Sporting Tale

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.

  • George Gay

    duh

  • Pete Baker

    There is an interesting pseudo-analysis [not quite] hidden away in the post.

    “Once upon a time, we could have fooled ourselves into believing that such practices were alien to the Irish sporting culture”

    a) “Once upon a time” – as opposed to this supposedly “modern sporting tale”

    b) “alien to the Irish sporting culture” – ’cause we’re above this kind of thing.

    Both are false assumptions based on the supposed ideal of Olympian fair-play and amateurness – which is itself a complete fallacy.

    Where competition exists, and rewards follow, an edge will be sought.

    In short.. it was ever thus.

  • wild turkey

    ‘Where competition exists, and rewards follow, an edge will be sought.

    In short.. it was ever thus. ‘

    In full agreement on that one Pete

    There’s a lot of angles to this story; greed, race, nostalgia, denial

    … and the underlying hypocrisy of the AMERICAN WAY.

    In a country where a major multi-million dollar drug and advertising industry has developed to allieviate the human tragedy of RESTLESS LEG SYNDROME (seriously) the moral indignation arising re Mr Bonds is dubious at best

    Drugs in sport? C’mon. I can remember going to Red Sox games at Fenway Park during the seventies. The bleachers (ie terraces or the cheap seats) were often blanketed in a blue haze of pot smoke and half the fans were waiting for the Grateful Dead to appear at home plate… ah but those were simpler times.

    PS Apologies to Willowfield for the use of any offensive Americanisms. Mahalo

  • mnob

    Its not just drugs – forgive me if the details of my recollection are hazy but I read an article a little while ago about major league pitchers. Apparently one had a bad soft tissue injury which resulted in surgery – in the surgey his tendons (ligaments muscles ? I’m not medical so Im not sure – but anyway the thing that attaches muscle to bone) were wrapped round his bone in a figure of 8 and then stitched on. This resulted in him being able to pitch faster.

    Having discovered this, other pithcers, who dont need it are having the surgery.

    Ethical ?

    Discuss.

  • Golf is another sport which has hidden under the radar for far too long, but the recent campaign by Gary Player to introduce manadatory drug testing is gathering momentum at quite a pace. Gary Player claims to know of at least 6 top golfers who are taking performance enhancing drugs.

    There is something really sanctimonious about some of the prominent golfing commentators on TV. (particularly the truly nauseating Bruce Critchley and also Peter Alliss). They portray the game as being an idyllic olde-world gentleman’s game, free from the perils of other modern sports. It will be interesting to see how they all react when the first major golfing star gets caught for using illegal performance enhancing drugs.

    (Which is a matter of when, and not if…)

  • wild turkey

    mnob

    ethical? don’t know. intuitively kinda doubt it but then again my academic understanding of ethics is probably comparable to your knowledge of the medical sciences.

    effective? definitely. why not go the whole hog, amputate the arm and attach a bazooka or RPG? Swish, boom, a swing and a miss.

    as an aside, check out the proposal of the late Dr Hunter Thompson in his last collection of essays, Hey Rube, to ELIMINATE the pitcher from baseball games entirely.

  • kensei

    Pete,

    Surely the statement “Once upon a time, we could have fooled ourselves into believing that such practices were alien to the Irish sporting culture”, implies exactly what you are saying?

    ?

  • Pete Baker

    ken

    I’ve probably been a little bit harsh in my comment.

    But the setting of this post is as “A modern sporting tale”.

    So, to rephrase my point..

    Sport hasn’t changed.

  • Cruimh

    I remember watching a TV program which said that the Greats of motor racing routinely used stimulants such as cocaine while driving – they haven’t always been banned.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Kensei

    I think that’s the closest we’ll come to Pete admitting he was talking through his proverbial….

  • Baudrillard

    I have only ever been to one baseball game – The SF Giants against Philadelphia a few years back at the AT&T park in San Francisco. Barry Bonds was batting.

    All around me people were guzzling beer, gorging on hot dogs and being assaulted by giant TV adverts to buy yet more stuff.

    How dare Bonds sully the purity of this sporting sanctum by taking steroids!

  • joeCanuck

    I remember seeing graphs on a tv documentary back in the 80s of the progress of world sports records since the start of the modern olympics. There was a small but steady increase in the times, heights, distances etc up until the time when the olympics were commercialised and professional athletes were allowed to compete. The records then took off; the implication, as I recall, was that, now that professionals were competing, drug use had entered the equation.
    Somewhat sad.

  • mnob

    Willie John McBride tells a story of the British Lions (they *were* the British Lions then) tour of Australia. It was a bruising encounter. The Lions actually had a signal that meant when they heard it they would all go crazy and attack the nearest opposing player. It was used when a Lion was in danger of getting disciplined. When invoked the theory was that the referee couldnt send the whole team off so noone got punished.

    I’m not sure there was *ever* an era of innocence in sport (Irish or otherwise).

    Theres also too many tales of young players GAA and football suddenly dropping dead of a heart attack (which can be a symptom of steriod use) for it to be coincidence.

  • kensei

    “So, to rephrase my point..

    Sport hasn’t changed. ”

    People have always sought advantage for reward. But the potential rewards from almost all sport has increased exponentially over the past few decades, and the gap between the top athletes and the rest has also widened considerably.

    The question is have the increased incentives correspondingly increased cheating and has that led to a Tipping Point situation ie have we moved from a situation whereby there were some cheaters and many honest to one where there are many cheaters and some honest. That would indeed I think have “changed sport”.

    Personally I find it impossible to believe any top athlete isn’t at it these days, and often wonder if those with pious protests over drug use aren’t big fat hypocrites. I am at a loss at how to fix either the problem or the perception though.

  • Cruimh

    joe – surely the huge advances in dietetics etc had a part to play in the changes since the ? Look at the changes in Soccer – People like Sir Stanley Matthews didn’t have professional dietary advisers and personal fitness planners etc.

    Anybody remember Alf Tupper having fish and chips before clearing up he fancy opposition ? Could Alf have been at it ??? 😉

  • joeCanuck

    What a happy memory you just jogged; Alf eating his fish and chips.

  • Kensei,

    I agree with you about Athletics and all the guys whom i work with feel the same way. It’s impossible to watch it anymore. Virtually every top athlete is under suspicion these days and thats why it is rarely ever screened on television anymore. The London Olympics could well yet turn out to be the biggest catastrope in sporting history.

  • A Cynic

    It all depends on the testers.

    The WADA standard is 6 testosterone to 1 something else as no-one can have those levels naturally.

    The WWE allow you to be 10:1 and will not do anything if you have a prescription for steroids.

    The Tour De France let a rider start who was not eligible under UCI rules.

  • The World’s Gone Mad

    mnob – the Lions call was ’99’ and actually took place against the Springboks in 1974. Here is it in action…

    Cycling is in the gutter and athletics is not far behind. Although obviously the viewing public are short-changed its those that finished fourth to the GDR and USSR in the 70s and 80s or second to the drug cheats now that I feel sorry for. Robbed of the glory.

    Artificial enhancements in sport is nothing new. Remember this?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy's_Boots

  • dodrade

    Prohibition of performance enhancing substances is an expensive waste of time and money and doomed to fail, as has the prohibition of narcotics in general.

    Why allow caffeine and creatine but not EPO or testosterone, both of which are naturally produced by the body? The distinctions are entirely arbitary.

    In the end it is still the athlete that is performing these feats. Ben Johnson didn’t have springs in his heels and Floyd Landis didn’t have a motor attached to his bicycle.

    The only way to ensure a level playing field is to legalise and regulate these substances so they don’t damage their health in the process.

  • Cruimh

    Always struck me as a bit unfair that those with money can gain a legitimate advantage – such as by jetting off for high altitude training – which has much the same effect as taking EPO.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Wild Turkey: “There’s a lot of angles to this story; greed, race, nostalgia, denial

    … and the underlying hypocrisy of the AMERICAN WAY. ”

    Uh-huh… keep telling yourself that, WT… mayhap you’re too young to remember the East German womens Olympic teams of yester-year…

    Cruimh: “Always struck me as a bit unfair that those with money can gain a legitimate advantage – such as by jetting off for high altitude training – which has much the same effect as taking EPO. ”

    Comme ci, comme ca… some of those training in high altitudes aren’t rich, leastwise not at the start. Just ask the Kenyans who keep winning marathons…

  • kensei

    “Comme ci, comme ca… some of those training in high altitudes aren’t rich, leastwise not at the start. Just ask the Kenyans who keep winning marathons…”

    Is it that less to do with high altitude and more to do with genetics?

  • If you want to know how bad steroid abuse has become ingrained in American culture just take a look at professional wrestling. In my own time I am a huge fan, due to having been a back yard wrestler in my younger and thinner days. in recent years atleast 20 men under 40 has died suddenly, most recently Chris Benoit who also took his wife and son with him.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Kensei: “Is it that less to do with high altitude and more to do with genetics? ”

    Nah… I think it has far to do with the simple fact that “running” is as much a mode of transportation in Africa as a sport or excercise.

    Pounder: “If you want to know how bad steroid abuse has become ingrained in American culture just take a look at professional wrestling. In my own time I am a huge fan, due to having been a back yard wrestler in my younger and thinner days. in recent years atleast 20 men under 40 has died suddenly, most recently Chris Benoit who also took his wife and son with him. ”

    Seen a variety of lists on the subject and most are misleading in one form or another. But, then, wrestling is not baseball or football — its a marginal entertainment shlupping along on cable channels. As for your list, at least some that I can think of were drug (pain-killer) related.

    I would argue if you want to see how endemic cheating and steroids have become to the European culture, simply look at bicycle racing. That would be about as fair and as accurate as your comment.

  • In defence of pro-wrestlers they actually end up performing up to 5 shows a week, it’s just the only 2 or 3 are put on TV. In the WWE performers are on the road 300+ days a year a much more grueling schedule than many other athletes endure.

  • kensei

    “Nah… I think it has far to do with the simple fact that “running” is as much a mode of transportation in Africa as a sport or excercise.”

    Pretty sure Marathon runners come from East Africa as they are genetically predisposed to have more slow twitch muscle fibres, and sprinters form West Africa as they are genetically predisposed to having more fast twitch fibres.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Kensei: “Pretty sure Marathon runners come from East Africa as they are genetically predisposed to have more slow twitch muscle fibres, and sprinters form West Africa as they are genetically predisposed to having more fast twitch fibres. ”

    To be honest, Kensei, it has to be both — a genetic advantage in the hands of a couch potato would have no impact on competition. Similarly, even an advantage in a normally active individual, say a Kenyan who works as a broker in London and takes the Tube to work, would not produce a marathon runner of a similar calibre.

    They run to get from here to there and they do so in adverse conditions. They have perhaps adapted to these conditions, so running in marathons at lower altitudes and in cooler weather is relatively easy.

    Pounder: “In defence of pro-wrestlers they actually end up performing up to 5 shows a week, it’s just the only 2 or 3 are put on TV. In the WWE performers are on the road 300+ days a year a much more grueling schedule than many other athletes endure. ”

    Throw in the fact that they are independent contractors and the pressure to perform is high. Its entertainment — image is everything. You can’t keep a “everyday in the gym” image when you’re 250+ days on the road.

  • wild turkey

    Dread C
    ‘Uh-huh… keep telling yourself that, WT… mayhap you’re too young to remember the East German womens Olympic teams of yester-year… ‘

    …oops forgot about the GDR women’s team. although in my defense i always confused the women’s team with, uh, the mens team. apparently so did many of the chromosone tests.

    ‘too young’
    thanks for the complement. I was pushing 30 when watching red sox games in the 70s.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    WT: “…oops forgot about the GDR women’s team. although in my defense i always confused the women’s team with, uh, the mens team. apparently so did many of the chromosone tests. ”

    Yeah, but think of the opportunities for razor endorsements…

  • Harry Flashman

    Yes DC, I have been harumphing a little here about all the comments about how it is somehow inherent in the American way or how “commercialisation” has led to this abuse of the sporting ideal.

    The biggest abusers of steroids in sport were the Soviet Bloc nations of the 1970’s and ’80s. And I would keep a close eye on the plethora of sporting records that the Chinese will be breaking in the upcoming Olympics.

  • kensei

    “The biggest abusers of steroids in sport were the Soviet Bloc nations of the 1970’s and ‘80s. And I would keep a close eye on the plethora of sporting records that the Chinese will be breaking in the upcoming Olympics.”

    My cynicism says: that’s because the US had better drugs. UK athletics has been rife with it recently too.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Kensei: “My cynicism says: that’s because the US had better drugs. UK athletics has been rife with it recently too. ”

    Not likely — American women’s team members from, say, the swimming team, can pose for Playboy as more than a novelty. They have all their hair on their heads and none on their faces. I’ve no doubt there are some bad actors on every team, but the Eastern bloc was naked in their efforts — when the women look like men and the men look like a throw-back down the evolutionary ladder, I don’t think you’ve got much of a case, Kensei.