Doping In Sports: A Story We've Gotten Too Used To?

The Olympics, baseball, track and cycling, among others, continue to struggle with the problem of doping, despite threat of sanctions. Sports fans are trying to digest news that never quite goes away. Some are wondering if it ever will.

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This past Sunday, the sport of track and field endured its latest revelation of positive drug tests by top athletes. And we're told Major League Baseball is preparing to announce sanctions against some star players for alleged banned drug use. Once again, sports fans are trying to digest news that never quite goes away.

And some are wondering if it ever will, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The details behind Sunday's news matter. Did three of the fastest sprinters ever, Tyson Gay of the U.S. and Jamaicans Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, intentionally dope or were their positive drug tests accidental? But even before details emerge, we brace for the worst. A quarter century of conditioning will do that.

John Hoberman is a doping historian.

JOHN HOBERMAN: Elite sport is dying the death by a thousand cuts every year because these scandals will not stop.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's Ben Johnson. Ben Johnson does it again. Unbelievable...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: After returning that positive drug test to steroids, Ben Johnson, no gold medal, sent home in disgrace for Canada.

MARION JONES: I have let my country down and I have let myself down.

MARK MCGWIRE: And I apologize to everybody in Major League baseball. Today was the hardest day of my life.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yes or no, in all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you even take banned substances or blood dope?

LANCE ARMSTRONG: Yes.

GOLDMAN: At each stop on that doping timeline from Ben Johnson 25 years ago to Marion Jones, to Mark McGwire, to Lance Armstrong, University of Texas Professor John Hoberman has fielded the question, will it ever end. Thirty plus years of studying, writing and talking about sports doping make him uniquely qualified to offer the following bleak answer.

HOBERMAN: Not in our lifetimes, it will not end.

GOLDMAN: Because it's become such a complex problem, the incentives to cheat have grown, Hoberman says, from individual athletes trying to win a growing pot of riches to countries everywhere pursuing high performance sport as a form of national self-assertion. And everywhere, chemically altering our bodies is the norm.

HOBERMAN: We inhabit a society that is riding on an enhancements wave.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Men notice an energy increase. They feel really good. They have more strength, more stamina, more sex drive.

HOBERMAN: Testosterone is being marketed as if it were suntan oil. You cannot walk across campus without seeing five different kinds of super caffeinated beverages. You have thousands of American police officers who are using anabolic steroids outside any acceptable medical guidelines.

GOLDMAN: Is it fair then, Hoberman asks, to say to athletes, you are role models and you have to be clean in the pursuit of victory. Fair or not, sports always have held a certain expectation of moral purity. It's what Doug Logan believed when he served as CEO of USA Track and Field from 2008 to 2010. Second day on the job, in fact, he wrote then President George W. Bush, urging him not to grant clemency to a jailed Marion Jones, as she'd requested.

But Logan now is one of those who's flipped. In the face of continuing drug scandals, he thinks the war on doping is unwinnable and the anti-doping agencies trying to win it are failing, he says.

DOUG LOGAN: All I'm suggesting is that we do away with the sports cops and cede the authority over the regulation of controlled substances back to government, where it belongs.

GOLDMAN: Interestingly, one of the world's top sports cops agrees. The war on doping cannot be won. But in an interview late last year, World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Hellmen said, we can win battles along the way. And this appears to be the preferred course for the foreseeable future, not changing the system, as Logan says, not legalizing medically monitored doping in sports as others have suggested. Instead, efforts at stronger deterrents as sports leaders walk a fine line between increased scrutiny and making it so risky to dope that athletes won't and making sure high performance sports don't become Orwellian with athletes losing individual freedoms in the quest for clean competition.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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