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It's in our blood

Sports fans demand superhuman performance, so why all the angst about steroids?

September 17, 2006|Robert Lipsyte | ROBERT LIPSYTE, a former sportswriter for the New York Times, is the author, most recently, of the young adult novel, "Raiders Night." His website is Robertlipsyte.com. A longer version of this article will appear at Tomdispatch.com.

I WAS SHOOTING depo-testosterone the other day, imagining how good the juice would make me feel and how it would power my pedaling up the Ram Island hill, the toughest test on my 15-mile bicycle ride.

I've been shooting steroids for almost 15 years, since a third cancer operation left me unable to produce testosterone naturally. Once a month, I nail one of my quadriceps with a 22-gauge needle and pump in the oily yellow fluid. Without it, my prescribing surgeon tells me, I would be physically fatigued and mentally sluggish, lose my sex drive, be achy and depressed. And I certainly wouldn't be pedaling up the Ram Island hill. No question I'm taking a performance-enhancing drug.

So naturally, my feelings about Floyd Landis testing positive this last steroid summer after winning the Tour de France with a ruined hip are so mixed as to be almost incoherent. Ditto for Giants slugger Barry Bonds and Olympic runner Marion Jones, who have both been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.

The way I see it, we're all complicit in the superstars' need for the needle -- we fans, coaches, parents, owners and media (I'm a recovering sportswriter myself). We demand that they attempt superhuman feats to thrill us, authenticate us, make us rich and proud -- and they need superhuman help to satisfy us. (We also want our Whole Foods food before it rots, so long-haul truck drivers pop speed.) And we don't want to know about the process. When it's jammed in our faces, when athletes come up "dirty" in testing (or truck drivers jackknife on the interstate), we demand that they be punished and expurgated from our fantasies.

This pattern of denial and demonization is our problem, not theirs. Steroid use in sports is a symptom of our disease more than theirs, and a fascinating, if tinted, window on jock culture and its connection to the complicated, dangerous, exhilarating way manhood is measured in America, from the field house to the White House.

"Athletes certainly have no ethical dilemma about doing steroids," said Dr. Michael Miletic, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst whose Detroit-area practice includes high school, college and professional athletes. "Steroids are totally embedded in the sports culture. We need to get past the finger-pointing."

There isn't even a solid body of scientific information. Exactly which performances are enhanced -- and how -- by which anabolic steroids, androgens, human growth hormone, erythropoietin (EPO) and whatever else athletes shoot, swallow and sniff? What are the long-term and short-term effects? Are those enhancements and side effects different for adolescents and adults, men and women?

And how can we justify separating sports performance from everyday life?

"Performance enhancement is in a gray area," said Dr. Robert L. Klitzman, a psychiatrist and faculty associate at Columbia University's Center for Bioethics. "Would you include new technologies to improve cognitive abilities? How about access to SAT prep coaching? Assisted pregnancies?

"It's going to get even more complicated as techniques for screening embryos and scanning brains become more sophisticated. Scientists will be looking for stupidity genes and smart pills. Cosmetic psycho-pharmacology is an area where people with money will have advantages over people who don't. Is that fair? In an ideal world there would be a level playing field. Exactly where does cheating begin?"

Childhood.

I've heard about normal-size kids getting human growth hormone to give them a leg up, and I've watched 4- and 5-year-olds taking golf and tennis lessons and racing quarter-midget cars and go-carts.

My accountant moved to Florida because his 8-year-old showed talent on the golf course. He says he would be doing the equivalent if his son were a whiz at math or the violin. As parents, he said, we have a duty to give our kids every chance to find the limits of their possibilities. No argument there, which makes it harder to argue about the limit of that duty and where it becomes child abuse.

I agree with Miletic, a friend and collaborator and a former Olympic weightlifter, that nobody under 21 should take steroids because of the unknown effect on developing bodies and brains.

But that we pretend to care about chemical performance-enhancers in sports seems like the last gasp of a dying empire that once claimed moral superiority (sports builds character for war and work) and now seems to treat it as yet another stage for grander and more expensive mass entertainment (to distract from war and lack of work).

Games have crossed over into the mainstream, with the Super Bowl becoming as much a part of the cultural landscape as the Academy Awards, its half-time variety show a coveted showcase. Jocks are treated like rockers and rappers, show-biz celebs insulated by agents, publicists, posses and bodyguards. Fans grumble at their perceived ingratitude for rich, easy, charmed lives. The media run their salary charts and their police reports alongside box scores.

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