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Sense of wonderment gives way to wondering

July 09, 2008|Kurt Streeter

I want to believe, I really do.

I want, once again, to watch a Promethean performance, athletes stretching to bold and unexpected heights, and be free of the nattering voice in the back of my mind. The one that asks: "Is this exploit born of hard work and iron will? Or is something more involved -- steroids, growth hormone, Adderall, or some new serum cooked up in a chemistry lab?"

Many of you know what I mean. You have the same lament. You watched the epic final at Wimbledon, the stunning results at the Olympic trials or the Tour de France as it began over the weekend. You loved every moment of this. But part of you, even if only a small part, wished you could believe fully and unconditionally, the way you used to.

Those days are gone. Thanks to 10 years of juiced-up homers and sprinters stripped of gold, thanks to frauds like Marion Jones and Floyd Landis, thanks to so-called heroes who boldly claimed innocence before coming up dirty as the L.A. River, we are now left to wonder about every monumental match or meet or game we witness.

The last few days highlight this.

On Saturday, a 41-year-old mother qualified for Beijing by wiping up the pool deck with swimmers two decades her junior. One had to work not to notice Dara Torres' supremely muscled body. One had to work hard not to wonder.

That same day, the nation's top sprinter pulled up lame in an Olympic trials heat. It looked as if Tyson Gay's leg muscles snapped up like Levolor blinds. We well know track's recent sordid history, and about the strain drugs can put on muscles and tendons. Once again, we had to wonder, didn't we?

Then came Sunday, where at Wimbledon two great champions swung from their heels for nearly five hours, the winner, Rafael Nadal, more muscular than any tennis player we can remember and both finalists, even the loser, Roger Federer, who looked like a lightweight, filled with inexhaustible energy.

When the match was over, I spoke to my friend Tom, a tennis fanatic if ever one lived.

I wanted to talk about the pressure, the tension, the glory of one of the greatest sporting events in history.

But the first thing that came out of Tom's mouth was a mention of doping. The winner, he claimed, didn't lift that golden crown naturally.

Come now. I reminded Tom that Nadal is, by all accounts, a wonderful, humble person, a credit to athletes because of his sportsmanship, skill and drive. Doping? Not a chance. Then I remembered the television broadcast and John McEnroe noting that after all that high-velocity drama, all those side-to-side scrambles and bludgeoned forehands, both players looked in the fifth set almost exactly as they did on the first point. I love tennis, love what unfolded Sunday, but doubt crept up about both of the finalists, I admit. How depressing.

Mine was a perfectly understandable reaction, said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor and a leading expert on sports doping. Let's face it, the way we look at great sporting moments "will never return to the way it was," he said. ("The way it was" being before 1998, before the drugged-up era when shortstops began looking like Superman and baseballs started jumping off bats like rocket ships.)

Hoberman ran through the sordid history we've become all too familiar with.

I'm not alone, he reminded. "There's been a cultural change and the last 10 years have changed the public mind-set. Now, really, there are very few athletes you can believe 100%."

In a nutshell he sent a simple message: Get over it, the innocent days of old are gone.

I know this, of course. Almost all of us do. We've been hammered by reality. It's just that this weekend, with all that greatness, and with all that is going on in the world, I needed a hiatus. I didn't get one.

Let's be clear before closing shop. I'm not saying Nadal, Torres, Gay or Federer are on the juice. This is about us -- about how these days we just have no real way of knowing whom to trust, about how we've been stripped of innocence.

And don't for a moment think that I'm one of those antidrug puritans who believe Barry Bonds should be shipped to Alcatraz and kept there for 25 years to life. We pay too much attention to pro athletes' drug use when our entire society is awash in performance enhancement. Consider the heavy use of Adderall on college campuses or the surgically rendered wannabe-starlets who live on every block in L.A. Maybe we need to drop the hypocrisy and look in the mirror.

Still, until we decide pumping the veins with Nandrolone is perfectly acceptable for our athletes, I'm for following the rules. We all know these rules have been broken way too many times. So many that any athlete who pushes boundaries to heights now operates under a cloud of suspicion. Just look at last weekend.

Goodbye days of old. Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Floyd Landis and all the others of their ilk have made believing the way we used to believe simply impossible.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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