It was only a few months ago that Mark McGwire admitted using steroids. MLB's Bud Selig responded with a thoughtful statement, and when Mark McGwire showed as hitting coach for Cardinals, he was applauded.
I have no issues with Mr. McGwire. Admitting, at any time, mistakes, takes guts. But, it did get me thinking. I remember being on a radio talk show in 1998 about Mark McGwire, and suggesting that he stop using the supplement he admitted to using at the time. The hate mail was fascinating.
The major feature writer for California Track & Running News magazine, Mark Winitz reminded me of a column he had written at the time on McGwire in 2005, and how I had not used it. I did not remember the whole situation, so I called CTRN's editor, Christine Johnson. She reminded me that I pulled the piece because, while we liked it, I thought it might be too much baseball. I was wrong to have pulled it then, and I wanted you to see it now.
Mark Winitz wrote this piece in 2005, when MLB was just starting their drug testing. It makes interesting reading now, and it shows the changes that have come in our sport.
I get this jab all the time, "everyone is dirty, stop putting your head in the sand." I find that comment just plain ignorant. First of all, the best thing USATF ever did was get out of drug testing-it was no win. Secondly, USADA and WADA, to my tastes, push the limits of legal protection and scientific judgement. Thirdly, WADA and USADA's education program are light years better than predecessors and young kids have seen the passion plays of Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, etc. Kids were crushed with Marion Jones, but, she cheated, and there had to be a result to her actions. And fourth, here is what I truly believe: through better testing, out of competition testing, 97 per cent of cheaters are getting caught. It requires a lot of money to beat the tentacles of WADA and USADA, so I encourage out of competition drug testing and continued diligence.
Finally, drug cheating is an ethical violation. It does not matter if one is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, pagan or humanist, ethics is ethics. Ethics is how we relate, with respect to other individuals and to our community. Cheating is just plain wrong. We have all done it, in various ways in our lives. And in the end, getting caught is the easy part. What it does to the people involved, in the act of cheating, is that it destroys their humanity.
The need for drug testing, in my mind, shows that what our society values is truly off kilter. What a young person learns from going from a six minute mile to breaking a five minute mile, or throwing a shot put 30 feet, is a life lesson. Learning to put a baton around the track, relying on three other humans to do it, is a life lesson.
Sorry for the soapbox. I hope you enjoy Mark's thoughtful
piece. It is, in my opinion, one of his best columns ever.
© Mark Winitz, 2005 Best Marks
Springtime: Baseball Beats Track, but not in Drug Battle
By Mark Winitz
Spring is here. Track and field and baseball are in the news, competing for the attention of sports fans. Everyone knows that—outside of an Olympic year—it’s no contest. On a daily basis, professional baseball captures far more spectators, media attention, and followers in the U.S. than track ever could. Its mind share among sports fans is broad and brawny.
Baseball’s popularity is firm as...well...a baseball, despite the fact that its record in the sphere of doping control is dismal. Pro baseball’s powerful player’s union sees to that.
Hardcore track fans got a kick last January when Major League Baseball rolled out a laughably tougher policy on steroid use. Now, pro baseball players are subject to in-season and off-season unannounced, random drug testing. Gee, a new concept?
Plus, they’ll receive a 10-day suspension for a first-time positive steroid test which increases to a whopping one-year ban for a fourth offense. Four strikes and you’re out—well, at least for 365 days on unpaid leave.
That’s a big dent in a player’s pocketbook, baseball analysts say. Maybe so, but pleeeease...
Athletes in Olympic sports (track athletes included)
—whose salaries are a fraction of multimillionaire ball players
—receive a two-year suspension for a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second. USA Track & Field’s Zero Tolerance drug policy has gained the respect of other sports federations. If Major League Baseball is truly taking the Balco scandal seriously, then capriciousness fueled by big-money ball has trumped civic and moral responsibility once again.
I wasn’t surprised when I read in the San Jose Mercury News that sales of prohormone nutritional supplements skyrocketed a week after pro baseball announced its new drug policy—just before a federal ban on prohormone supplement sales went into effect. Prohormones include androstenedione, a steroid precursor that Mark McGwire admitted using in 1998, setting off a high demand for the testosterone enhancer. The widespread use of andro, DHEA, and other prohormones by recreational athletes—as young as teen age—is common knowledge. Ask the clerk at your neighborhood nutrition store. They’re now banned by Major League Baseball and by Olympic and other sports. Baseball didn’t ban andro until last year.
What about amphetamines? Major League Baseball doesn’t ban them, and their use in the majors has stayed widespread for many years according to players. Amphetamines and other stimulants are prohibited in Olympic sports.
As testimony to how far we’ve come—and how far we’ve stayed the same—regarding the complicated issue of drugs in sports, I offer below an article that I wrote in 1998. Positive comments by readers in its wake following the highly charged ‘98 baseball season told me that it touched a chord. I think the article is still relevant today as Barry Bonds pursues the all-time home run record and Balco revelations continue to surface. Although the names have changed (substitute Bonds for McGwire, for example), the players remain the same. Although we’ve made much progress in the war on performance enhancing drugs, we have a long way to go.
Setting Records Straight
(Reprinted from the Runner’s Schedule, November/December 1998)
One of the momentous acts in all of sports is setting an individual world record. When an athlete enters territory where no human has ventured before—especially in a sport that we love—our reactions are excitement, awe, envy, and inspiration. Sometimes, we react with a tinge of sorrow or regret, especially if we held the previous record or record holder in high esteem. When a longtime world mark is shattered, often incredulity enters this emotional mix. Sometimes, a feat seems so superhuman we look for reasons beyond our preconceived bounds of pure human potential—and sometimes we find them. Good ones and bad ones.
I admit, the month of September, 1998 was an emotional roller coaster for much of the world—me included. Simultaneously, while struggling with the excruciating details of a presidential inquiry, we followed a slew of prominent new world records in the sporting world, and remembered enduring ones. In the space of a few weeks the following occurred:
• Roger Maris’ single-season home run record was broken by not one, but two players—Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—after it endured 37 years.
• Another baseball player, Cal Ripkin, voluntarily ended his record streak of consecutive games at 2,632 which he started in 1982. Talk about streaks!
• An unlikely candidate, Brazil’s Ronaldo da Costa, broke a 10-year-old men’s world best in the marathon, running 2:06:05 in Berlin. Only a few months before Tegla Loroupe smashed the women’s 13-year-old best with a 2:20:47 at Rotterdam.
• Sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner—whose world records at 100m and 200m on the track have stood for more than 10 years—died suddenly from a sudden heart malfunction at the age of 38.
• Ben Johnson—a former world record holder at 100m—failed in a Toronto appeals court to lift his lifetime ban from track and field for steroid use.
Alone, any of these events (with the exception of Johnson’s) might qualify as the sports story of the year. Together, they added up to one incredible month, guaranteed to cause even hardened sports fans to wear their emotions (and opinions) on their sleeves. And these events—happy, sad, unjust, just, credible and incredible—made me examine closely my feelings about today’s sports heroes, their images, and how their records affect others. Especially kids.
I wasn’t always a track and road running enthusiast. I didn’t acquire an appreciation for the simple act of running until I was in my 20s. As a kid, I never thought running extraordinary, although I did plenty of it—most often, running the bases, or shagging balls in the outfield. Simply, me and my childhood buddies were baseball nuts. I risk dating myself by admitting that I’m old enough to remember Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle—my early heroes—battling to break Babe Ruth’s highly regarded home run record in 1961. I was 11 years old, and my friends and I would flock to old Griffith Stadium—the home of our team, the Washington Senators—when the Yankees came to town.
Sports were different back then, for both kids and adults. Media exposure was a fraction of what it is today. And there was this sweet bliss of innocence. Although Mantle was an alcoholic and a womanizer, in my youth I never heard his personal life described on the radio, or plastered over the newspapers. It wouldn’t have dampened my idolization anyway. Today—as an adult—I can distinguish between Mantle’s heroism on the field and the frequent lapse of heroic traits in his personal affairs. Unfortunately, children and adolescents don’t often make these kinds of distinctions.
Maris, evidently, chain smoked to help calm his nerves during the intense pressure of the ‘61 season. I didn’t know that fact until I read it last September when his record was being chased. A sports writer brought it up to substantiate his point that McGwire’s use of androstenedione and creatine—supplements that boost testosterone levels, help build muscle, and are legal in baseball—is no big deal.
But it is a big deal. A very big one. The same way a president’s personal indiscretions are a big deal. Who is going to teach our youth about the possible consequences of risky behavior if we can’t expect our leaders and our heroes to set an example?
In the old days, we could claim ignorance as a cushion, but in today’s hyper-media world where no intimate details are left uncovered, we can’t. Now, everyone—especially our stars—must take greater social responsibility for their actions, public and private.
Today, of course, drugs are a prominent issue, especially in the world of track and field. Doping offenses are so visible in track because historically track and field athletes have been held to the highest drug abuse standards. Their sport forged the way in drug control; indeed, track’s system—both in and out of competition—is the most extensive in the world.
Basically, track’s governing bodies have said that performance-enhancing drugs just won’t do, and anyone caught using them will be disciplined.
Unfortunately, track’s diligence—while catching real offenders like Ben Johnson—has also fostered suspicion inside and outside its ranks. Rumors fly, tainting some of the most notable marks in the sport. And being on the leading edge can mean administering tests that aren’t fully debugged.
Flo Jo passed every drug test she ever took. But her record sprints—because they came so suddenly and they’ve stood up so long—have always made her suspect in some eyes. I prefer to take the “innocent until proven guilty” approach while keeping my eyes wide open. As long as the jury’s out—and as of this writing there was no solid incriminating evidence against Flo Jo—the defendant is innocent. Yet her premature death still makes us pause. “What if?” we ask.
If Mark McGwire were a high achiever in track instead of baseball, the jury would have delivered its verdict long ago. He would not be a record holder. He would have ended up an outsider like Ben Johnson. Andro is a banned substance in Olympic sports such as track, by the National Football League, and in collegiate sports. Baseball allows it, but it shouldn’t. (Editor’s Note: Major League Baseball banned andro in 2004.) Creatine is allowed in track and other sports (Sammy Sosa reportedly uses it). In fact, it’s widely used, partially because there’s no test that can detect supplemental use.
Other sports are opening their eyes. Cycling certainly did last summer when synthetic EPO—a banned substance that boosts blood volume and performance, but can cause sudden death from blood clotting—was discovered in quantity among one country’s team members at the Tour de France
In fact, no one today knows what kind of long-term effects supplements such as andro and creatine have on the human body. Will they cause cancer, liver damage, or heart problems? Impotence or infertility? An inability for the body to later produce its own hormones? Might athletes be risking the prospect of finite glory today for infinite pain or disease tomorrow? Certainly, the prominent use of these substances will encourage scientific studies in the future. And, maybe the Food and Drug Administration will explore regulating what it classifies as “dietary supplements,” at least to minors.
Soon, after the Maris homer chase really heated up, sales of andro and creatine disturbingly increased fivefold. Ads started prominently appearing on ESPN, Fox Sports, TNT, and other cable stations. No doubt, in large part, these purchases were made by young people wishing to emulate McGwire and Sosa.
There’s no doubt that these anabolic agents allow athletes to bulk up in the short run. Back in 1991, I met McGwire up-close in the Oakland Athletics locker room while writing a story on Ricky Henderson’s all-time stolen base record. McGwire was a huge guy then. He’s much bigger and stronger today—the result of an intensive weight training program and supplements. He’s a rich man and holds a cherished record. But in the long run will he have thrown himself a wicked curveball?
I’m not inferring that McGwire wouldn’t have hit 70 homers if he didn’t supplement. I simply don’t know. There are too many other variables. I do know that hitting a small, very hard round ball coming at you at high speed with a smooth, round bat takes a very special skill and talent. So does, say, sprinting 100 meters in less than 11 seconds, or running a marathon in the two hour range.
In my opinion, the single-season home run record and the 100-meter sprint world record are the most prominent marks in all of sports. Although they are dissimilar athletic skills, they both hold a universal appeal—the world’s most powerful home run hitter, and the world’s fastest human. That’s why—although I’m a McGwire fan—his brilliant achievement is smeared in my mind by a touch of irresponsibility, an air of nonchalance, a bit of ignorance concerning his potential affect on young admirers. Today, as an adult, I expect more from my heroes. The age of ignorance is gone.
There’s something to be said about setting records straight. In my mind, those are the only kinds of records that count in anyone’s book. It goes for the multi-million dollar professional athlete, the high school football team scoring a winning season, and the recreational runner setting a PR.
And it’s incumbent upon our top athletes to demonstrate that, while records are great achievements, how you set them is a lot more important than what you’ve set.
Flo Jo, rest in peace. The only jury you must answer to now is a higher power.
Congratulations, Mark McGwire. You’ve given us joy and reaffirmed our belief in the resolve of the human spirit. Now, use that resolve to hit a homer against drug abuse.
Mark Winitz has been running, writing about running, and organizing programs for runners, for well over 20 years. He is a longtime activist within USA Track & Field. He also assists road racing events through his company, Win It!z Sports Public Relations and Promotions in Los Altos, CA. Mark welcomes your comments. Contact him at (650) 948-0618 - telephone; or (650) 949-2172 (fax). You may also post him via e- mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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