To be a sports fan is to get a constant education in subjects that don't necessarily interest you. Usually the lessons are in economics or criminal justice. We all become experts in labor relations as our favorite sport careers toward a strike, urban planners as our town considers building a new arena for the home team, attorneys as the latest high-profile trial of an athlete approaches.
Lately we've had to become chemists.
An unfolding scandal involves one of the largest investigations into performance-enhancing drugs in the history of sports. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Bill Romanowski and some of America's top track and field stars have been called to testify before a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, a nutritional supplement lab in Burlingame, Calif. The grand jury is looking into whether BALCO owner Victor Conte laundered money or evaded taxes, but the big headlines involve the discovery of a previously undetectable designer steroid known as THG, which is so new that the Food and Drug Adminstration officially declared it an illegal drug last Tuesday.
If you've been conscientious in your studies you know THG stands for tetrahydrogestrinone. An anonymous informant told U.S. Olympic officials that certain track and field athletes were using a performance-enhancing steroid that couldn't be found by the standard tests. A used syringe was sent by overnight mail to the Olympic testing lab in Los Angeles, where scientists isolated and identified THG and developed a test that would find it.
On Sunday the New York Times described this process in a fascinating article that may have set a record for the most detailed description of gas chromatography to appear in the sports pages. I'm definitely taping that story to my wrist for the midterm, even though I don't remember ever signing up for chemistry class.
Conte denies any wrongdoing.
Obviously the discovery of a previously undetectable steroid could have huge consequences throughout sports. We constantly hear about how the drug users are always a step ahead of the testing authorities, and here's what looks like proof that, sure enough, at least some of them have been. Could we be close to an awful explanation for the cartoonish way baseball and football players have bulked up over the last 15 years, of how track and swimming record times keep improving, year after year?
"This might just be the tip of the iceberg," Caroline Hatton, an Olympic testing lab chemist told the New York Times. "We're a little afraid of what we don't know and may never learn."
The discovery of widespread steroid use would be deeply disturbing not just because it would mean the competition we've been enjoying all this time has been tainted, but also because it would mean the athletes we cheer on have been endangering their own health. Even if you feel that legal adults should be free to endanger their own health to their heart's desire, it wouldn't be much fun rooting for Bonds or Sammy Sosa or Marion Jones -- I use these unaccused athletes as examples only -- if we knew that in the coming years we were likely to be reading about their failing livers, diseased hearts or compromised immune systems, all a result of some performance enhancer.
Or would it still be fun? We eat up ever-more-humiliating reality TV, from the Osbournes to Anna Nicole Smith to asinine newlywed pop stars and mind-numbingly obnoxious rich kids. If we're comfortable with people sacrificing their dignity for our amusement, why not their health? And anyway, athletes risk their health for our amusement even when they're clean. Watch any old NFL player walk a few steps on a cold morning. Every year race-car drivers and jockeys are badly injured or even killed on the job.
When this year's epidemic of ethical failings in the college sports world was in full swing, a person I know well and whose opinions I respect wondered if many people really cared about whether a coach is dishonest, or whether the system exploits its players, a related, favorite subject of mine. "I just want to see a good game," he said.
I think a lot of people feel that way. Asked how they feel about steroid abuse, I suspect most sports fans would dutifully answer that drugs are a serious problem that must be dealt with effectively. But I also suspect they don't feel so strongly about it that their interest in the issue approaches their interest in, say, a Wednesday night Cavaliers-Nuggets game. That's why baseball has never gotten serious about a drug testing program. It knows the fans aren't demanding to know who's dirty.
If Hatton, the worried Olympic chemist, is right, we might be learning more than we want to know about a lot of athletes before long. Then a thousand lawsuits and criminal actions will bloom, and sports fans can crack open their law books and return to a more familiar area of study.
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