When Scott Burns, the U.S.'s deputy drug czar, was asked to serve as the U.S. representative to the World Anti-Doping Agency, he had one question for those already working to eliminate performance-enhancing substances and drug use in sports.
"There were about 160 countries in attendance, and I asked the (others) who the biggest cheaters in the world were," said the former Iron County attorney. "And unanimously they said, 'You are. The United States.'"
That was 2003, and Burns said that despite the perception that professional and world-class amateur athletes cheat without fear of penalties, the situation is getting better.
"I don't know that you're ever going to dissuade someone from thinking that everyone cheats," Burns said, "but at our last meeting in Madrid, we probably got more accolades for progress made than anyone."
Burns was assigned to the WADA because the United States is one of the few countries that doesn't have a minister of sports.
"Most countries have a famous former athlete, a world-class athlete, who oversees these issues for them," Burns said in a telephone interview earlier this week.
And while the former quarterback for Southern Utah University, who is a member of the SUU Sports Hall of Fame, has plenty of experience as an athlete, he feels a little "red-faced" comparing his athletic experiences with those of his colleagues.
That doesn't stop the former prosecutor, however, from vigorously pursuing policies that may someday mean less cheating in sports and more severe penalties for those who do.
Burns, both as a prosecutor and as an administrator for the (White House) Office of National Drug Control Policy, has made it his life's work to deal with deadly issues like methamphetamine use and prescription drug abuse. He's also been heavily involved in strengthening drug courts so that those who get entangled with drugs have some hope of earning their way out of the criminal justice system.
With such weighty work, should our government even bother with cheating athletes?
"We have time for both," he said. "We're not going allow athletes to cheat while we stand by and do nothing."
And do-nothing has been the strategy of those in charge for many years. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is my poster child for this 'don't ask, don't tell, and just-pretend-you-know-nothing' approach. He has claimed that he didn't know performance-enhancing substances were a problem in baseball until 1998, when Mark McGwire reportedly admitted to The Associated Press that he used androstenedione. Despite this discovery, which came after McGwire and Sammy Sosa's thrilling home-run chase, the MLB and Selig didn't bother to ban androstenedione until 2004.
And to those who think people like Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis and Marion Jones aren't really criminals, that they aren't really doing anything that hurts other people, Burns vigorously disagrees.
"It's so important to do something about this," he said. "Because these are the people our children look up to."
Like it or not, famous and successful athletes become the role models our children hope to emulate some day.
And our win at all costs mentality is costing us more than our dignity. It has cost Marion Jones five gold medals and Floyd Landis his Tour de France title. It may cost Barry Bonds his freedom.
"If using steroids or doping of any kind, is acceptable, it becomes the norm for them," Burns said of aspiring young athletes. "It's not going to happen over night, but we've made great strides in the last five years."
Burns was chosen to represent the 40-nation Americas' region on the WADA's Executive Committee, as well as elected the chair of the 180-nation Ministers of Sports Conference in Greece. He said officials are making progress is uniform rules, tests and investigations.
As baseball awaits the Mitchell report, which many believe will name specific players who've used steroids and other performance enhancing substances, the world awaits athletes who understand what honoring the game really means.With million-dollar salaries, billions more in endorsements and the thrill of being immortalized by forgiving fans on the line, I hope whatever Burns and WADA officials have in mind to combat this problem, can even compete. Because suspensions, fines and even stripping athletes of records and titles doesn't seem like enough to overcome the temptation to cheat.