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Let's Wait for the Drug Test

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The results of drug tests are becoming more important than the box scores in many sports. It's depressing to all who love sports, and it's tempting to point to incongruities in the ways the rules are applied. But all sports rules are arbitrary.


It's getting so that when sports fans shout, way to go, you don't know if a run has been scored, a race has been won, or if an athlete has just filled the cup for his post-match urine test. When you hear that the White Sox beat the Blue Jays last night, or that Tiger Woods and Brett Quigley are tied for the lead at the Buick Open, do fans say yeah, or drat, or hmm, let's wait for the drug test?

Today's news that Floyd Landis's backup urine sample confirmed high levels of testosterone, and that he is no longer considered the winner of this year's Tour de France, and this week's news that Justin Gatlin, the world champion sprinter, may now be banned for life for failing a similar test, is depressing to those of us who love sports as a kind of unscripted daily drama. The theme - struggle, winning, losing in grace - are real, but they're games. When we exult or despair its cathartic and restorative, like good drama or comedy.

It's easy to find inanities in the rules against drugs and sports. Athletes can have ocular surgery that will make their vision sharper. They can take vitamin supplements until the content of their bladders turns blue. They can have rotator cuff surgery, a procedure that's actually made some baseball pitchers stronger. They can train for two weeks at a high altitude to put more oxygen into their blood to compete at sea level. But they cannot take steroids or testosterone.

Now some commentators have pointed to these incongruities and asked, how can we expect to keep drugs out of sports when these days people take a drug to go to sleep, a drug to feel less depressed and a drug to have sex? What's so outrageous about taking drugs to run or pedal faster, or hit a baseball farther?

I think that a lot of these people are thinking too much. Athletes will tell you that's a mistake in sports.

All sports rules are arbitrary. Three strikes you're out, not four. A sprint is 100 meters, not 85 or 105. Surgei Bubka(ph) can use a fiberglass pole to vault 20 feet into the air, but he can't just climb up there on a ladder and jump over the rail. Soccer players can't put their hands on the ball, and as Zinedine Zidane so recently demonstrated, they can't use their heads on each other.

I guess the rules on drugs are there to protect ambitious athletes from harming themselves for life. They're there so that fans know they're watching gifted human beings competing and not their pharmacists.

And finally, I think they're there because we have to recognize that children often idolize athletes. I know, I know - why can't it be poets, doctors or teachers? Well, they can disappoint people too. But if sports are to be more than a freak show for drug peddlers and their customers, athletes ought to be able to signify for children that hard work, sacrifice and joy can make a difference in sports, and real life beyond.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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