Between the failed case against pitching legend Roger Clemens and the never-ending investigation into Tour de France phenomenon Lance Armstrong, it’s tempting to write off doping as something we should just accept in sports—the thing to do if you really want to win. After all, if scientists and students are taking drugs to enhance cognitive performance, why not let athletes do the same? Nature isn’t equal in dispensing physical and intellectual ability, so let science and the free market level the playing field.
Harrison “Skip” Pope, professor of psychiatry at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, concedes that keeping drugs out of sports is a Sisyphean task. “Those of us who do research in this area are all quite cynical about the magnitude of doping in sports and feel that it is all probably much greater than is generally believed by the public,” he says. “It’s also extremely difficult to control, and even with the best control, it still persists.”
But giving up would subject athletes to a great deal of danger, the magnitude of which is “only beginning to be appreciated by medical research,” says Pope, who is also an avid weightlifter. The preliminary data on steroids suggest that long-term use damages the muscle of the heart, significantly increasing the risk of an attack. The first wave of people who started abusing steroids in the 1980s is only now reaching the age where these risks start to hit home. Stopping enforcement would force all athletes to dope up in order to stay competitive, thereby increasing the demand for newer and riskier drugs to regain a competitive edge.
Still, it would be one thing if only elite athletes were putting themselves at risk, but the staggering reality is that they account for only 1 percent of the people abusing these kinds of drugs. This is why internist Gary Wadler, one of the foremost experts on athletic doping, sees it as a “huge public-health problem.” What happens in elite sports influences what happens in schools and commercial gyms. There has been a spate of high-school-athlete suicides in the past decade associated with steroid abuse; teens are particularly at risk because the pattern of cycling on and off these drugs messes with their hormone levels, leading to mood swings and severe depression.
But “the public is getting tired of hearing about elite sportsmen taking drugs,” says Wadler, who just finished his term as chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List and Methods Subcommittee. “I hear it all the time—Clemens, Bonds, ‘yeah, I know already.’ Doping fatigue—that’s my biggest concern.”