For years my buddy Russ has been advocating an all-steroids Olympics—no substances off limits, no lab-coat police, may the best chemist win. Let the athletes eat, drink or inject anything that will make them run faster, jump higher or grow stronger. Allow them to rub testosterone gel all over themselves like sunscreen or binge on HGH if they prefer. Imagine the results if we allowed athletes to soup up their bodies like '68 Mustangs and see what those babies could do. Sprinters would finish the 100 meters so quickly, it would feel as if your eyes were on fast-forward. High jumpers would have longer hang times than a 60-yard punt. Weightlifters would clean-and-jerk midsized sedans.
To me, the idea of allowing athletes to freely use performance-enhancing drugs borders on absurdity. I don't want to see competitions decided according to which athlete is most willing to take chemical risks with his or her body. But my resolve weakens with each convoluted case of suspected PED use. Maybe we really should turn athletes loose in all sports. That would at least eliminate the tedious, drawn-out investigations and prosecutions of suspected drug cheats that all too often come to no definitive conclusion—like the case of Ryan Braun, the Brewers' slugger whose 50-game suspension for testing positive for synthetic testosterone was overturned by arbitrator Shyam Das last week. Braun triumphantly declared that his innocence had been proved, but of course that's not true. In these high-profile steroid cases little is ever really proved.
Braun argued that the test was invalid because the sample wasn't shipped to the lab the day it was collected. But he has not disputed that the sample tested positive, nor has he offered a plausible explanation for why it showed a testosterone ratio more than 20 times higher than normal. (At his press conference last Friday, he referred vaguely to possible tampering with the sample, but in making his case to the arbitrator, he reportedly never suggested that as the cause, and there is no evidence that the sample was doctored.)
The most logical explanation for the positive result is that Braun did, intentionally or not, use testosterone from an outside source. The suspicion lingers that he took a performance-enhancing drug but escaped on a technicality, leaving him in that familiar PED limbo along with other well-known athletes who have been acquitted but not exonerated, or convicted of only a tangential offense, or freed from investigation but forever suspected.
Is it worth the time and money spent on these probes when so many come to such an unsatisfactory conclusion that we can't remember how—or even if—they ended? Quick: Where does Roger Clemens's prosecution stand? If you answered correctly (without going to Google) that his first court action ended in a mistrial last July and the retrial is set for April 17, you get a free copy of the thousands of pages of legal documents his case has generated in the four years since he was accused of lying under oath about steroid use. The storm of controversy that once surrounded Barry Bonds tapered off to a light drizzle by the time he was convicted of one count of obstruction of justice in December, five years after he was indicted. Bonds was sentenced to 30 days of home confinement—not very harsh when your home is a Beverly Hills mansion.
The U.S. Attorney's office ended its probe into allegations of fraud and drug trafficking by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong a few weeks ago, but have no fear—the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency plans to continue its own investigation. Guilty or not (and Armstrong denies it all), he will probably be the target of someone's probe until the only wheels he's riding are the ones on his chair at the old folks' home.
More and more, the effort to catch PED users feels like a hopeless chase. The chemistry moves at a sprinter's speed, with rogue scientists ever trying to develop drugs that can't be detected by the testing of the day. Victor Conte, the former BALCO head who served four months in prison for steroid distribution and money laundering in 2005, has said he believes many athletes are using a new, fast-acting testosterone cream that becomes undetectable within hours. Catching cheaters promises only to get harder, especially in Major League Baseball, which rarely tests players in the off-season, when they are most likely to be doping to recover from injury and to build muscle.
But there's no drug to counteract the steroid fatigue that sets in for the rest of us over the legal battles, the haggling over testing protocols, the Congressional hearings and the trial continuances, which all seem to trail off into nothingness. At least Braun's case won't drag on, since it appears that though MLB "vehemently disagrees" with the overturning of the suspension, it won't pursue the matter further. We will probably never know for sure whether Braun was falsely accused or is a persuasive liar. But maybe it doesn't matter. It's a sign of our times that I find myself thinking less about that question and more about this one: If a hitter juiced to the gills on synthetic testosterone connected with a fastball from a pitcher shot full of HGH, how far would it travel?