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Essayist John Hoberman, the author of Testosterone Dreams

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Marion Jones' Fall from Grace

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Marion Jones' Fall from Grace

Essayist John Hoberman, the author of Testosterone Dreams

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Essayist John Hoberman, the author of Testosterone Dreams, comments on track star Marion Jones' admission that she used steroids before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where she won five medals. Until now, Jones had strongly denied doping allegations against her.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Olympic track star Marion Jones pleaded guilty today to lying about using steroids. She could be stripped of the five medals she won in the Sydney Olympics.

John Hoberman is a sports historian who follows doping scandals. He was surprised by Jones' admission, but not for the reasons you might think of.

JOHN HOBERMAN: I was surprised not because I believed she had resisted the temptation to dope, but because she actually admitted potential wrongdoing. Back in 2004, she held a memorable press conference in which she claimed her innocence and said she'd never used performance-enhancing drugs.

Having studied athletic doping for more than 20 years, I learned years ago the difficult but inescapable truth that a lead athlete are perfectly capable of lying to their teeth about their doping practices. The Tour de France cyclist Richard Virenque started lying about drugs after the 1998 Tour.

Then, he lied about it for more than two years before finally coming clean. The American cyclist Floyd Landis was found to have doped himself with testosterone during last year's Tour de France. He continues to protest his innocence despite credible scientific evidence that he's not telling everything he knows.

I watched Landis' self-promoting appearance on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" last year and found myself uncertain about whether I thought he was guilty or not. He sounded so genuine. The Marion Jones saga is just the latest in a long series of revelations about the doping habits of many, many elite athletes.

It is useful to think of the doping epidemic in modern sports as a phenomenon of the past half-century. Amphetamines began to spread through cycling in a big way during the 1950s, while the 1960s saw a proliferation of anabolic steroid use in football, in track and field, on a scale that is still unacknowledged in the world of sports. Massive drug use in a popular sport can go unrecognized and unsanctioned over a long time.

How many of us realized until just a few years ago that large numbers of Major League Baseball players were relying on amphetamines to get them through a grueling 162-game season?

Similarly, only a tacit collaboration involving cycling officials, professional cyclists, their trainers and doctors could have kept the lid on the drug soap Tour de France over a period that lasted for decades.

So what's the solution? Can a lead athlete be persuaded to compete clean? I must confess that I smile when I hear sports officials talk about educating a lead athlete out of their doping habits. After what we've learned in recent years, it is hard to imagine that the incentives to practice workplace doping are going to diminish.

It is time to recognize that many of the athletes, who were held up to the sporting public as role models, inhabit an ethics-free zone where anything goes on behalf of boosting their performances and the careers they make possible.

NORRIS: John Hoberman is the author of "Testosterone Dreams." He's a professor at the University of Texas.

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