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Steroids & 'fairness'

| Saturday, Aug. 21, 2004

Athletes being caught taking drugs that make them stronger or run faster have become an Olympic tradition. But "doping" scandals -- using steroids, dietary supplements and new chemical concoctions such as THG, the "nutritional supplement" linked to Barry Bonds -- have hit every sport this side of extreme canasta.

For reasons of health and morals, and to preserve the Victorian ideal of fair play in sports, league officials, the sports press and the public at large are generally in favor of drug testing athletes and banning the cheaters.

But Norman Fost, a physician, expert in bioethics and director of the medical ethics program at the University of Wisconsin, doesn't buy any of it. A sports fan, he argues steroids are not as dangerous as they are portrayed to be by a hysterical and sensational mainstream media. And he doesn't think using drugs to enhance athletic performance is cheating. I talked to Fost this week by phone from his offices in Wisconsin:

Q: Is there a problem with doping in sports?

A: No, I don't think so. The problem is that it is illegal, and that leads to the exclusion of athletes. Why it's illegal is quite mysterious to me. That is, drugs -- steroids in particular -- are one of literally a thousand ways that athletes since the beginning of time have tried to enhance their performance in artificial ways.

Just watch the swimming -- there was a 10-minute segment on the technology of the swimsuits and how hard we try to keep ahead of the Germans, the Dutch or the Russians in that technology. There are a thousand different technologies like that, external devices and equipment to enhance performance, and there's an equal number of internal ways in which people try to change the structure and function of their bodies to get an edge up.

All this has been going on for a thousand years, and steroids are one example of it. But why they get singled out for this moral outrage escapes me.

Q: Is it true that there are more athletes using performance drugs today?

A: It's almost certainly true, but it's impossible to know. The testing protocols change every year. The testing is much more sensitive than it was five, 10, 20 years ago. Many of the athletes, of course, keep ahead of the testing, so there are many athletes using drugs that we don't know about because we can't test accurately for them. We have a sense from the news coverage that it's more widespread, but there is no objective way of knowing.

Q: They say 5 percent to 7 percent of baseball players have tested positive for steroids. Are you a baseball fan?

A: Extremely.

Q: How do you react to the argument that steroids are ruining the game?

A: It seems to me they are enhancing the game. ... Barry Bonds is widely assumed to be a steroid user. I don't know if it's true. But if he is, he's the biggest draw in all of sports today. How is that ruining baseball• People come out, by the millions, just to see Barry Bonds. And (baseball Commissioner) Bud Selig wants us to think that if Bonds is using steroids, baseball would be better off if Barry Bonds were banned• It's incoherent. It's ludicrous to say this is ruining baseball.

Q: Are steroids harmless•

A: No. Not harmless. But the severity of the risks and the frequency of the risk are wildly overstated in almost every press account that discusses risk. There are common risks that are mostly cosmetic or reversible. ... There are changes in blood lipids that are in the undesirable direction -- the good lipids go down and the bad lipids go up -- and this gets translated by the press (and by some doctors) into statements that there is an increased incidence of heart disease or stroke. I don't know of any evidence of that.

Q: The reports that NFL players or pro wrestlers are dying from past steroid overuse are just...?

A: Wildly exaggerated. If you can get a doctor to give you a reference for a reasonably scientific article that shows a higher incidence of death in NFL athletes who are using steroids, I'd love to see it. I've tried to review the entire world literature on this. I can't find the evidence for that statement.

There is one very serious risk for children, which is that they will stunt their growth. That's one of several reasons that I and everyone else are totally against use by children, and I think there should be rigorous testing of children.

Q: Doesn't drug use destroy the whole idea of fair competition and "the spirit of sport"?

A: Absolutely not. What destroys fair competition is unequal access to things that affect performance. When Ben Johnson was castigated for using steroids in the '88 Olympics and had his medals taken away, literally on the same day, Janet Evans, America's sweetheart, is holding a press conference, bragging about the greasy swimsuit that she had used that she was quite sure played a major role in her getting a gold medal.

That is unfair competition, because she was very happy about the fact that the East Germans did not have access to that technology. Johnson was using something that everybody had access to, practically on the training room table.

Q: Why do you care so much about this issue?

A: Mainly because of the hypocrisy. It just bothers me when people get on soapboxes claiming something is immoral yet tolerate other things that are much more clearly immoral.

Q: Your position is getting a lot of favorable press of late. Does that make you hopeful that things might change?

A: Not really, no. The forces of ignorance and hysteria and hypocrisy are much more powerful in this case.

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