Thursday, July 26, 2007

the high price of a clean sport

with barry bonds closing in on henry aaron's immortal home run record under both a dark cloud of doping suspicion and the obsequious image-management of espn, many observers around baseball have openly lamented the damage to the game. many finds bonds' pursuit shameful for its tainted aspects, just as they openly despise the single-season home run chase of 1998, when presumed dopers mark mcgwire and sammy sosa drilled long ball after long ball, day after day. i myself remember with mixed feelings watching mcgwire take batting practice in old county stadium in milwaukee, as he hit shot after cartoonish shot out of the stadium, traversing the back of the bleachers at an altitude even with the lights, as though launched from an inhuman cannon.

few, however, seem to further recall how a sport devastated by middle-1990s labor strife revived (it is said) largely on the basis of that exciting chase, as well as the also-rather-dubious ironman run of cal ripken jr. few can remember the atmosphere surrounding baseball then, when many who loved the game questioned its very appeal in the era of speed and attention-deficit-disorder. the game has since surged in popularity, coming off the mat as it has so many times before. but it is too much to say that its revival in these last ten years is itself built on a foundation of doping?

the opinions surrounding the game are as varied as the people who love it, and i don't think anyone can speak for "the fans" as though there were a consensus on doping. but to judge from the very vocal moral outrage of many, there does certainly exist a faction of fans who wish dearly to see the sport cleansed of such "unnatural" performance-enhancing elements. i wonder if they have considered very much the possible cost of manifesting such ideas.

the world of professional cycling seems very far from baseball, but it is pregnant with potential lessons with regards to doping controls. in the late 1990s, many in that sport felt its credibility mortally challenged by doping, and the international governing bodies began a crusade to cleanse the sport. cycling has since become the most rigorously tested and controlled sport on earth, with athletes required to report their whereabouts to governing agencies every day of the year, the better to be able to surprise them with random drug tests. millions have been invested in developing drug tests for doping agents and the substances used to mask them. even natural substances like testosterone must fall within strict limits of concentration in the blood samples of riders to avoid sanction and suspension. cycling has made the most aggressive and comprehensive effort of any sport to discourage its riders from using performance-enhancing drugs.

the result has been singularly devastating. coming on the heels of 2006 tour de france winner floyd landis' positive test for synthetic testosterone and subsequent year-long trial to have him stripped of his title and barred from the sport, an international anti-doping law enforcement effort known as operation puerto ensnared several of the sport's greatest stars, including titans ivan basso, jan ullrich, oscar sevilla, francisco mancebo, santiago botero, jose enrique gutierrez and marco pantani. these names mean little to most american baseball fans, but they read as a litany of all-stars to cycling fans worldwide. confidence in cycling has been shaken to its very foundations, and the environment around the game has reduced its fans to questioning the moral standing of every single rider who succeeds. all outstanding achievements of any recent cyclist -- particularly those of the iconic lance armstrong, who has long been tenuously linked to doping though never concretely -- are viewed today through a lens of deep skepticism and reservation.

this year's ongoing tour de france -- the planet's greatest cycling event -- has done utterly nothing to quell that presumption of guilt, the race having turned into a complete disaster. alexander vinokourov, probably the most powerful and popular cyclist in the sport, recovered almost miraculously from a stage 5 crash to win the stage 13 time trial in grand fashion, and then subsequently defeated the field again in stage 15. but it has since been revealed that vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion -- showing a fraction of another person's cells in his post-race blood sample -- which is a means of illegally increasing the oxygen transfer capacity of the blood. vinokourov was removed from the race, and his entire team (which had been implicated in operation puerto) accepted an invitation to drop out. the following day christian moreni failed a testosterone test, and his entire team subsequently withdrew.

today, the most dramatic blow -- race leader michael rasmussen was sent home by his team on evidence that he had lied about his whereabouts in the weeks leading up to the race, a time during which he missed two drug tests. suspicion had circulated around him even before the start of the tour, and many questioned if he should have been allowed to begin the race at all as he had been dropped by the danish national team over these same suspicions. even as he was winning the most dramatic and penultimate mountain stage of the race to seemingly end the chances of his rivals, his team finally claimed to have substantiated the rumors and was withdrawing him from competition.

as the pinnacle event of the sport implodes spectacularly, the sporting press is replete with proclamations of the death of cycling. sponsors had already begun to leave under the persistent accusations and subsequent provings of cheating in the sport, and that initial swell is now expected to become a full-scale flight from a tainted vehicle for advertising. national television coverage of the race has been halted even in cycling-mad countries such as germany. the sport is on the brink of being cut from the summer olympics. important voices are calling for the tour de france to be stopped, even for the entire racing schedule to be suspended while the sport tries to repair itself.

no one who follows professional baseball should be under any illusions about its nature. ambition, fame and greed drive baseball players just as they drive cyclists -- you can be sure that, if baseball ever attempted to implement a genuine doping control system of the kind enacted by cycling, scores of the game's stars would be unceremoniously tossed from the game and their careers effectively ended. what effect that might have on fans and the advertisers that fuel the entire professional construct perhaps cannot be forecast, but given the moralizing of many baseball fans one can expect that the sport would be gravely injured in having its dirty laundry finally aired.

contrary to what one might derive from my tone of examination, this is not purely an argument to leave things as they are. whatever resuscitation and attraction doping may be responsible for, it also has cost the game in other ways. in any case, my moral assessment of doping is by no means universal or even relevant. my only point is to note what the price really could be and probably would be of making a concerted, honest and meaningful effort to clean up a sport whose very foundation in professionalism is, after all, synonymous with cheating. king kelly was cutting second base and eddie cicotte throwing games long before anyone knew what a steroid was -- and it probably can be no other way when huge sums and the unconsidered adoration of millions are at stake. there has never been a day of honest professional baseball, and drug testing would not change that any more than it has in cycling.

many fans of baseball love the game specifically for and for little else but its ability to mimic an avenue to their lost innocence, to offer an illusion that seems an irresistably simple and linear respite from a frequently chaotic, complex and disillusioning life. those poor folks would find the price of a clean sport very, very high indeed as honesty and integrity would destroy much of the illusion that has been so meticulously reconstructed since the intrusion of anarchic reality that was 1994. would the game once again get up off the mat in the aftermath of such an event? i think it's something worth considering.

No comments: