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Fool’s Gold

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Another famous world class athlete was busted recently for using performance enhancement drugs. Track superstar Marion Jones admitted she used steroids during the peak of her career, including the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Her confession was stunning given that Jones had adamantly denied using anything except good old fashioned hard work and proper nutrition to develop into one of the premier female athletes in the world. She has agreed to return her five gold medals from that Olympics along with her profuse apology to friends, family and the world in general.


Jones is not alone. A couple of National Football League players and even an assistant coach have been suspended this season for similar offenses. Just before the World Series, a starting pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, Paul Byrd, said he took growth hormones a few years back but no longer uses them. On and on it goes, in every sport, everywhere around the world. Even the pro golfers tour has announced plans for drug testing. Pro golfers? Many of them look like they should be using something, judging from their rather soft looking, non-athletic bodies.


So why do they do it? Why risk the potential long term side effects from these drugs? Why risk the public humiliation and possible legal difficulties? Why risk throwing a career away, a career that most people on the globe would almost die to achieve?


Therein lays the answer. These top flight athletes are super intense and unbelievably competitive people. They live to compete. They live to excel. They live to win. They possess not only the physical talents but the deep, inner drive required to compete for the gold. It is their life. It is their obsession. Their very self worth is intertwined with athletic performance. It is a commonly accepted truism that an athlete would gladly trade away several years of their life for a huge sports contract or a championship. And they are afraid. Not of the possible risks but of the competition. If other athletes in their sport are using, then they have to use just to compete. There is too much money, too much fame and too much self worth to let a cheating rival take it away from you. So in goes the needle and down go the pills.


One might ask so what? Athletes have been cheating and have been looking for that extra something ever since sports competition began thousands of years ago. Baseball has an accepted and legendary culture of cheating, with pitchers doctoring baseballs and sign stealing common. Every professional observer in any sport will tell you the players and coaches and trainers are always pushing the spirit of the rules for that particular sport, always trying to get that extra edge in competition. Careers depend on it.


It's not fair. It strikes at the very pure heart of sports, you might protest. That argument sounds good on paper and in the philosophers' living room and maybe in heaven, too. But this is terra firma, populated with imperfect human beings. If someone on the other team is cheating, throw the book at that bum but if he is our guy? Well, cut him some slack, everybody's doing it; maybe a brief suspension is in order. Maybe.


This attitude appears to be generational. The thirty and under crowd seems far less concerned about chemically enhanced athletes than the thirty and over bunch. Look at the continued popularity of pro wrestling, where everyone looks like they are injecting anything they can get their rich, little hands on, as fast as they can. Major league baseball continues to set attendance records despite the belief many of the games' top names have been suspected of juicing things up. Just give us the tape measure home runs and the 100 mile per hour fastballs, seems to be the new fan mantra. The same attitudes prevail in other sports.


So does it really matter? Should we really care that much if wealthy, famous athletes want to abuse their bodies to entertain us? Yes. Here is why.


There is indisputable evidence that teen age athletes are juicing it up, just like their heroes. Potential athletic scholarships and opportunities in pro sports are on the line. These teen athletes know this and they will do almost anything to reach that seductive brass ring, even if it means riding a carousel horse made of chemicals. They also know what their heroes know: drug enhancement works. They can recover from injury quicker and work out longer and get bigger, stronger and faster. The black marketers know this too, and they patiently sit in the shadows. They know the teen athlete will step into the darkness for the ill-gotten needles and pills. There have been newspaper accounts of such a black market for nearly two decades. A teen athlete becomes aware of someone who knows of someone who knows of someone else and bingo; a drug enhancement deal is done.


This is why the use of enhancement drugs by professional and world class amateurs has to be condemned. The sports universe has to try to keep teen athletes from going down that very risky road, a road fraught with potential life threatening side effects. The world has to do this by aggressively pursuing chemical free sports competition. There is hope.


Sports organizations, oversight agencies and law officials are beginning to work in tandem on the problem. Even slumbering major league baseball appears to have finally awakened into the 21st century on the wrongs of steroid and human growth hormone usage. Prosecutors are using subpoena power to obtain doctors prescriptions, pharmacy invoices and shipping orders and other records, to pursue the suppliers of these chemicals and not just the athletes using them. They are having a positive impact. How much of an impact and how sustainable that impact may be are yet to be determined.


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