09 December 2004


Well, the posturing has begun on the BALCO revelations and grand jury testimony.

Who am I kidding? The posturing began before there was even any testimony provided. Most of it is ill-informed bullshit from parties with vested interests in appearances, regardless of the underlying realities. I include both the athletes and the so-called "regulators" in that broad-brush attack. In fact, I include the media, too; sadly, the NYT article cited above is far more balanced and perceptive than most. The only media articles that I've seen in the past decade that even approach an in-context evaluation of the evidence and programs appeared in the Guardian and Times (London) in 2000 and 1998, concerning respectively Andreea Raducan and Michelle Smith de Bruin.

The athletic authorities need to take a hint from the abortion and medical marijuana controversies and consider a "health of the athlete" exception to their draconian, zero-tolerance regimes. Many preexisting medical conditions are properly treated with otherwise-banned substances; many asthma medications, for example, are steroids, and will trigger a positive result on drug screens. There are some awfully high-level athletes who have asthma; and a "zero-tolerance" regime that essentially blocks them from competing when they are following medical advice for unrelated, preexisting conditions smacks of not just elitism, but outright discrimination.

I also have a broader philosophical objection to zero-tolerance that is a bit more subtle. If the proper purpose of regulating off-field behavior and preparation is to ensure the integrity of athletic competition, we need to remember that most high-level athletic competition takes place on discrete, infrequent occasions. The Olympic Games, for example, occur only quadrennially for given events. If an athlete's recovery from a specific serious injury in the months before a particular Games would be possible only through careful, medically supervised assistance from a performance-enhancing substance, and that athlete would have clearly qualified for the competition (or even been a leading contender) absent the injury, how are we protecting the integrity of the competition by barring that athlete from competing by denying her the chance to recover? Keep in mind, too, that a high-level athlete's career seldom spans more than three quadrennial competitions, and even that great a span—requiring about a decade of top-level performance—is generally limited to either highly specialized individual events or team sports.

I don't advocate everyone going out to score some steroids and bulk up; I only advocate a much-more-nuanced approach to substance-abuse control in athletics. Bluntly, I want the focus on abuse, not all uses. Defining all uses as abuses, as does the present system, only undermines the credibility of the system with both athletes and the public. A system with no credibility is not worth enforcing—particularly not on a strict-liability basis. Remember that Ben Johnson claimed—without compelling proof, but with some reasonable inferences—that his initial sample in Seoul had been spiked by a competitor. That's just a hint of what it probably coming; and if someone can get to a French ice-skating judge, just how hard would it be to get to an underpaid testing monitor? Given the money at stake in high-level athletics (and, with almost no exceptions, "high-level" no longer includes anything resembling "amateur"), I can't discount this potential issue. I had first-hand experience with the poor administrative procedures and human fallibility involved in drug-testing programs while a commanding officer; I find it difficult to believe that administrative procedures and human fallibility have changed that much in the last decade, particularly as the agencies involved in checking for athlete use of PESs have historically (and even recently) demonstrated substantial disdain for both.

Sometimes there really are witches. I suspect that there are some real witches at BALCO. But trying to paint everyone even peripherally related as witches does nothing to deter the real ones: they'll get burned if they float and drown if they don't, so it's in their respective best interests to evade notice rather than clean up their behavior.