If you want to know how complex, polarizing, confusing and utterly messed up the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is, consider the reaction to the drug cases against two of sports' biggest fallen stars.
Barry Bonds, who never flunked a drug test, was pursued relentlessly for years by anti-drug and legal authorities, and when they finally pinned something on him nobody rallied to his defense. It's safe to say that most cheered on the pursuit of the cheating home-run king. Why? Because he was — let's see, what's the word? — a jerk, and there was little question of his guilt.
Enter Lance Armstrong, who also never flunked a drug test and was pursued relentlessly for years by the same authorities until they recently stripped him of his Tour de France titles. The media has rallied around him like a home-town hero for the most part. Why? Because of his charm and the great work he has done in the cause of cancer fundraising — never mind that there can be no reasonable question of his guilt.
Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who authored a biography of the cyclist, began a recent column thus: "First of all, Lance Armstrong is a good man." And then, following the script for Team Armstrong, she claimed Armstrong is actually the victim and drug officials are the bad guys.
Well, Jenkins is not the first media type to fall for Armstrong's charisma and good works, not to mention his Hollywood-worthy story of overcoming cancer. Rick Reilly, maybe the finest sports columnist ever, made a fool of himself gushing and fawning over Armstrong in a column a few years ago.
"Doesn't Armstrong deserve the benefit of the doubt?" he wrote. "A man who's worked tirelessly for and inspired people you know, people in your life, people who don't even know yet that they will need him for inspiration? ... Doesn't he deserve at least that?"
So now we're supposed to determine which drug user is a good guy and which isn't, as if the job of catching cheats weren't nearly impossible already? Bonds is a serial jerk, so who cares? Armstrong is a good guy, so give him the benefit of the doubt.
(Memo to Sally: If Armstrong is such a good guy, why are so many teammates and former friends ratting him out and providing the backbone of the case against him?)
Well, drugs in sport is about as complicated as immigration. There are no easy remedies. Team Armstrong has been masterful in its response to drug charges over the years. Its strategy: Deny, deny, deny and play the victim card. It was almost comical how much smoke collected around Armstrong and yet he continually claimed there was no fire.
Team Armstrong's final act was both original and genius — Armstrong capitulated, saying he will no longer fight drug accusations and calling drug officials' pursuit of him "an unconstitutional witch hunt." With a single stroke, he rides off into the sunset as a sympathetic figure who, by the way, never has to defend himself against the charges. Brilliant.
Cut through all the baloney and gamesmanship and the only issue is whether he took PEDs. The evidence is overwhelming that he did. It strains credibility to believe that he not only beat cycling's best for seven straight years, but beat them all while they were on drugs and he was clean. Drug use is rampant in the sport. The hard truth is that Armstrong wouldn't even have a platform for his charities if he hadn't cheated. The whole thing is based on a lie.
So are most sports. Do you believe anything you see now? If you are not suspicious of Jamaican sprinters, Barry Bonds, Flo Jo, Chinese swimmers, most track and field world records, most cyclists, many NFL players, prodigious home run hitters, anyone who suddenly starts to run faster or jump farther near their 30th birthday, anyone who makes a sudden off-the-chart improvement, then you are uninformed. Sure, it's just a coincidence that baseball's home run binge of a decade ago came to an abrupt halt.
It might be time to throw in the towel. Let them take drugs and live with the results. It can't be stopped. Drug tests catch only a small minority of drug users, who always seem to be three steps ahead of the testers. Open the floodgates. No more wasting time and money on tests, no more suspicions and suspensions, no more lies and ludicrous denials.
The policing of drugs is remarkably uneven from sport to sport. Track and cycling are serious about it; the NFL, only on the face of things. The NFL has gotten a free pass (who wants to kill the golden goose?). Does anyone really believe that the athletes who have the most to gain from steroids and human growth hormone simply are not taking them, while drug use is rampant among cyclists and sprinters?
But he passed all the drug tests! That's a common defense for athletes and their fans and media. And so naive. The remarkable thing about the case of Ben Johnson — the Canadian sprinter who was stripped of his 100-meter dash gold medal in the '88 Olympics — wasn't that he was doing drugs; it was that he got caught.
Bonds never officially failed a drug test. Marion Jones never flunked a drug test, either, and she took 160 of them. Tim Montgomery never flunked a test. Mark McGwire never flunked a test and he admits he took steroids. Sammy Sosa never flunked a test.
They have ruined the record books in baseball and track; they have all but killed the Tour de France. Who thinks the situation will improve?
Maybe it's too easy to demonize the users. What would you do if you knew that nearly every one of your competitors was using PEDs, that you were in essence spotting the other guy a two-yard lead at the start of the race? So they rationalize, even with the health risks. It becomes like exceeding the speed limit. Everyone does it. It's survival through drugs.
This is where we find ourselves as the world's most renowned cyclist rides away as the wounded hero.