- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Amid the blizzard of steroid news swirling around prominent athletes, among calls for action by President Bush, Sen. John McCain and other politicians and Major League Baseball’s apparent intent to do something, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is the topic du jour in sports.

But is the juice already out of the bottle? Can what many consider to be a serious problem be remedied?

Former Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay offensive lineman Steve Courson, who has studied the issue extensively and helped alert the world about steroids in the NFL, is among many who say that so many athletes (some as young as sixth-graders) are using steroids and other products designed to add size, strength and speed, the situation might already be out of hand.

“The thing that scares me the most is that we’ve taken such a cavalier attitude toward drug use in the sports world, and we only react when there’s been an embarrassment,” Courson said.

The use of performance-enhancing substances is “as widespread as it’s ever been,” said Penn State professor Charles Yesalis, an acknowledged authority on the use and abuse of such substances and a friend and professional acquaintance of Courson’s.

Former track coach Charlie Francis, who helped Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson obtain steroids, said in a documentary last year, “Steroids are so ubiquitous, so omnipresent in sports. They have been for decades.”

Accordingly, the discussion and search for answers has been prominent for decades. Bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted using steroids long ago. Johnson lost his Olympic gold medal in 1988 after testing positive. Football players like Courson and baseball players Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti alleged widespread steroid use in their sports. The NFL, NCAA, MLB, International Olympic Committee and other athletic bodies have instituted methods of testing for steroids and other illegal substances.

Now the ongoing BALCO story and the admission or accusation of drug use involving baseball players Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds, along with track star Marion Jones, has brought more attention than ever to the subject.

But those who know it well are not surprised at recent events.

“There is zero new information here,” said Yesalis, who has devoted much of his working life to writing about performance-enhancing drugs. “None of this is new. Drugs have been very good to sport.”

Yesalis, a frequent speaker on the subject, said if fans wanted to see competition in its purest sense, they would flock to high school football games. But they want something else.

“What really sells sports is bigger-than-life people doing bigger-than-life things,” he said. “Guess what drugs do? They make that possible. And the reason this is going on is that fans don’t care. They want to be entertained. They may be upset about Giambi or Bonds or whoever might have used drugs, but they’re not gonna turn off their televisions. Good business people know when their customers are happy and when they’re not.”

The New York Times last week quoted a New York Yankees fan as saying, “Everybody’s doing it. It’s like sex in high school. People take worse things. It enhances their ability to perform, to please the crowd. So be it.”

Courson applauds MLB for planning to toughen its steroid testing program, bringing itself closer to the supposedly model NFL system. Whether it will have the desired effect is where the doubt remains.

“The NFL is doing the best it can do, but the technology is not up to date,” Courson said. “The history is that the cheaters have always stayed ahead of the dope detectors.”

And will continue to do so, Courson said, especially with the advent of so-called designer steroids and such substances as human growth hormones (HGH) that avoid conventional detection methods.

“There are too many holes in the system,” Courson said. “Too many undetectable drugs. The NFL is doing what it can do within the realm of its technology, but at the same time, I think the technology is wanting as far as creating a level playing field.”

After his playing career, Courson developed a heart problem so severe he was considered in dire need of a transplant. In what is almost considered a medical miracle, he avoided that and returned to full health through diet and exercise. Now working as a physical trainer, Courson will not claim, like the late Lyle Alzado, who died of cancer, that steroids directly caused his condition, “but I do think it was part of the mix.”

The NFL points to a vast reduction in positive steroid tests since its testing policy took effect in 1990. But Courson remains skeptical, based largely on “the money involved and the increased size of the players,” he said.

“People are pushing for a stiffer testing policy in baseball, but the real story is whether a stiffer policy will level the playing field,” he added. “From what I’ve seen in the NFL, the answer is no.”

Frank Uryasz, president of the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which administers drug tests for NCAA institutions, acknowledged the system is hardly foolproof.

“It’s a fact there are drugs athletes take that we cannot detect,” he said, citing HGH as prominent among them. “Certainly the IOC and other sports organizations are putting forth funds to develop tests for growth hormones, but we don’t have it. There are probably athletes using growth hormones that we’re not detecting.”

But Uryasz also noted such organizations as his own and the Anti-Doping Agency are not sitting idly, either. “Oftentimes [people] don’t know, nor or are we going to tell, what’s going on on the scientific side to detect the next drug we’re not detecting,” he said. “We continue to always be looking for the next substance to detect. We’re all working to improve it.”

The use of performance-enhancing drugs “is a problem that’s not going away,” said Uryasz, who started working with the original NCAA drug-testing program in 1986. And part of the problem, he said, is there is a great confusion among athletes about what is permissible and what is not.

“We’re always throwing products at them,” he said. “This pill, that cream or powder. When you cross over from just food to something that comes out of a bottle, to me that’s a slippery slope. I wonder if supplements haven’t been training wheels for the big stuff.”

To that end, a new version of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act, first passed in 1991, was recently enacted. Now such supplements as androstenedione, which Mark McGwire admitted he used while breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record (since surpassed by Bonds) in 1998, are now illegal unless dispensed by prescription.

Nebraska Republican congressman and former Cornhuskers football coach Tom Osborne, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said there apparently was a surge in andro use among teenagers after McGwire set the record and added, “We began to get alarmed.”

Osborne is familiar with the steroid issue. His own Nebraska program began steroid testing in 1984, two years before the NCAA did, after several of his players were reputed to be juiced. A few subsequent drug tests turned up positive, but Osborne said the problem was resolved.

“I tend to be optimistic,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever stamp out some type of manipulative behavior, but I hope legislation and common sense prevail so that we have a 98 to 99 percent level playing field.”

But, he added, “It’s gonna be expensive. You’re talking about cutting-edge technology. There has to be a concerted effort and a real will for it to happen. Most high school and college athletes won’t have the wherewithal to purchase the next designer drug. But a few world-class athletes will have the opportunity.”

Then there is the “Brave New World” aspect to the issue that might render substances obsolete within a few years. With such potentially frightening advancements as genetic engineering and gene manipulation, super athletes might be created undetected, in a laboratory, with no drugs required.

“That will make everything else look like child’s play,” Courson said.

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