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Cracking the Lid of Pandora's Box

as bicycle racing's aura fades before the facts, our hypocrisies stand clear and burnished

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 30, 2007.

Within the last week, the sport of bicycle racing pretty much was revealed as a twitchy bunch of addicts for the illegal, when a former Tour de France winner admitted to taking banned ingredients, and his team and various medical people and other competitors and even those who ran the Tour pretty much collapsed into humiliated and guilty silence. Except for those now publicly admitting they also partook of the forbidden and cheated. The former champ allowed as how he’d give back his medals, saying he had his memories and que sera. Good for him. But at that level of athletic competition, you probably cannot stay pure and win. Last year’s Tour de France champ, after a fall, won after an absurdly energized performance that most attribute to illegal potions taken after he fell and was injured, when they could be hidden in the medicine. That case is in trial.

Yesterday, Texas lawmakers approved mandatory steroid testing for high school athletes, following New Jersey and Florida. Texas. Winning at football in Texas defines you as a human being, so such steps are not taken lightly. When you have kids dropping of heart attacks in their early twenties or late teens, even, or just dropping dead as did a Denver Bronco this past winter by unknown cause, it is hardly irresponsible and hysterical to search for reasons when they were so healthy otherwise. It may be that some of these athletes had supposedly unknown heart deformations, a recent popular explanation, or congenital diseases unknown till autopsy, but I remain cynical.

The problem is we give human growth hormone to healthy but short children with no health blowback. Well. As yet, anyway. We give testosterone to those deficient through genetics or disease to no known horror within prescribed doses. So, why is it cheating for athletes to take more if they wish? Why do we hammer on steroids as cheating for baseball players when we don’t, as has been pointed out, for the eye surgery that can take bad eyes and make them provide 20-10 vision?

In fact, modern medicine itself is cheating, strictly speaking. Despite the fact that central African nations have had, medically, about two bottles of aspirin between them to give to their athletes, they routinely hammer athletes from around the world in distance running, as was just shown here last Monday at the Bolder Boulder 10k race. Most of them did not have anything approaching the childhood care and medical attention growing up we have had. I’d imagine not a few look upon the facilities and the equipment available to our top athletes as cheating by another name long before they worry about medical enhancement. But of course, they now have access to that as well at their level, because it’s money for someone if they win.

Corrupting discussion of all this, as it corrupts everything, is the American attitude and hypocrisies on recreational drug use. The first thing many people focus on in the debate about steroids and hormones and blood banking and actual chemical stimulation is whether any emerging policy or law will affect their own often illegal drug use, and cost them more. Let’s not go there and argue about the Drug War and illegal drugs. I’m against just about all drug and alcohol laws, so are many of you, I’d wager. But it continues to bug me that the underlying selfishness and psychological addictions if not physical are viewed as the prime territory to defend.

There are those on the establishment side who definitely want to start mandatory blood testing of high schoolers in order to prevent their use of marijuana or more dangerous entities. But, coincidently I’m sure, once you have a blood sample, you can find out lots of things, like pregnancy. I expect that is behind the surprising move from reactionary Texas under cover of public concern for their teenagers’ health and the integrity of athletics.

There are those on the other side of this not entirely distinct fence who’d not weep to see kids keel over, succumb to steroid addiction, become more violent and mentally ill, so long as nothing is done to even vaguely encroach on their relaxing smokes after work.

This is the short-sheeted ethical bed we’ve made for ourselves, and we can only lie on it in discomfort and some embarrassment. If it’s cheating to use performance enhancement in sports, why wouldn’t it be cheating to advance at the expense of others at work, or in competition for a mate? And if we make it legal for adults to make adult decisions about some substances……well, you can see what horror that leads to. Stare decisis. People stoned and enjoying peaceful evenings at home listening to music. Where will it end?