Why it's more upsetting when endurance athletes fail drug tests than when NFL or MLB players do.
Last January, in the wake of a retroactive doping violation, Usain Bolt was stripped of one of the three gold medals he won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Bolt himself wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing—it was Nesta Carter, his teammate in the 4x100-meter relay, whose reanalyzed blood samples from the games showed traces of the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine. As a consequence, the Jamaican relay team was disqualified—more than eight years after blowing away the competition in the Bird’s Nest stadium.
The fact that Jamaica’s entire relay squad was punished for the infraction of one individual member is a stark reminder of how much more of a threat doping poses to professional running’s integrity compared to big-money team sports. It seems inconceivable that a World Series– or Super Bowl–winning franchise would have its title revoked if it was later revealed that one or more of its players had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Even though taking action against a championship-winning team after a months-long season is perhaps not directly comparable to a disqualification in a single race, there’s no question that when it comes to doping, we have different standards for different sports.
But why? Why does the use of banned substances seem to be a greater ethical weight for some athletic disciplines, like running and cycling, than for others? It certainly isn’t the case that other sports are innocent.
Take baseball, for instance.
If Carter’s doping violation is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Jamaica’s result from that race—currently the third-fastest time ever run in the event—will be excised from the official record books. (That’s what happened to the 37.04 mark set by the U.S. men’s 4x100 team at the 2012 London Olympics after Tyson Gay failed a drug test in 2013.) In baseball, on the other hand, the league’s statistical record list is littered with players who are proven drug cheats. Mark McGwire has bluntly stated that he used banned steroids “throughout the ’90s,” including his famous 1998 season during which he hit 70 home runs. Nevertheless, Big Mac sits comfortably in 11th place in the league’s all-time home run list.
While there are considerable discrepancies between the ways different sports leagues and federations handle drug violations, the argument can of course be made that the potential advantages for would-be dopers are not the same across the board. As I’ve previously discussed, endurance sports are not skills based in the same way that most team sports are. While sound technique and form are certainly a factor in distance running or cycling, aerobic capacity—that is, fitness—is more essential to competitive success. Since it’s much easier to improve aerobic capacity by means of illegal substances, it can be argued that PEDs provide an unfair advantage in endurance events in a way that simply doesn’t apply to other sports.
“There’s not a pill or an injection that is going to give me or any athlete the hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball,” McGwire told Bob Costas when he confessed to using steroids in 2010. Indeed, what was notable in McGwire’s “coming clean” was that he insisted that he only used the drugs to help his body recover, and that he could have broken Roger Maris’ longstanding home-run record without steroids. An EPO-convicted runner with a spike in race performances could never make a similar claim.
McGwire certainly has a point, although one could counter that being able to endure the physical demands of a long Major League Baseball season is part of what makes hitting 70 home runs in a season so difficult in the first place. Breaking the rules for recovery purposes is still breaking the rules. This is especially pertinent in pro football, where the ability to recover quickly from intense stress on the body might be the difference between a million-dollar contract and getting cut from a team. (The healing potential of human growth hormone (HGH) has been well documented.) Just because a drug doesn’t make you any better at hitting a fastball or catching a Hail Mary pass doesn’t mean it can’t provide you with a significant advantage.
That said, there is likely another reason why doping is consistently more of an issue in the endurance sports arena than in the sports dominating ESPN headlines. Unlike the many international federations and governing bodies that have to comply with World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regulations, U.S. pro baseball, football, and basketball leagues are ultimately able to decide for themselves how strictly they want to enforce their anti-drug policies.
Testing for HGH, for instance, was adopted by the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) only in 2015. As others have reported, there has been much criticism of the inadequacy of such tests. (Despite suspicions of widespread use, not a single NFL player tested positive for HGH in 2015.) Compared to WADA, the NFL also has rather lax standards when it comes to disciplining players for PED infractions. In most cases, a first offense for doping in WADA-compliant organizations like the International Association of Athletics Federations results in a two-year ban, followed by a lifetime ban in the event of a second violation. In the NFL, on the other hand, even repeat offenders are only given a ten-game suspension—barely more than half a season. Similarly, while top performers in major marathons can expect to be tested immediately after the race, game-day testing in the NFL is virtually nonexistent
We should remember that these organizations are, first and foremost, multibillion-dollar entertainment businesses. The urgency with which they engage with potential doping problems will always be determined by the extent to which doping threatens to affect the bottom line. (In a parallel example, the NFL’s evolving stance on concussions was influenced by an influx of lawsuits from ex-players and increasing negative publicity.) If a league’s fan base decides that the spectacle of the sport isn’t diminished by the prospect that some athletes might not be clean—and, really, why would it?—there will be far less pressure on the league to do anything about it.
There’s nothing inherently spectacular, on the other hand, about watching someone run or ride a bike. What helps make these sports enticing is how the best athletes perform an activity everyone can relate to at a level that most us can only dream about. For Olympic sports like cycling and running, this relatability factor is an asset—albeit one constantly imperiled by would-be dopers—that harks back to the sports’ amateur roots. It’s an asset absent in a sport like pro football, where the spectator experience is one of watching gargantuan robot men trying to decapitate each other in prime-time HD. In a world that is already so removed from reality, what’s a little HGH?
The same can’t be said for a pared-down sport like track and field, where so much of the appeal lies in the way profoundly gifted human beings perform simple tasks with superhuman ability. Not everyone will agree, but to me, the appeal falls off dramatically when the athletes actually are superhuman.
For that reason, I couldn’t care less if Mark McGwire used steroids, but if Usain Bolt ever fails a drug test, it will break my heart.