Fans of baseball and cycling can now find common ground. We have both succumbed to the paranoia of DRUGS and have been forced to witness the embarrassing exposure of our chosen sport’s dirty little secret. Our pure sport, our fair competition, the one with clear-cut winners and losers, the one that rewards hard work and dedication, has been replaced by something far less noble. It has been transformed into a tabloid story of abuse and deception, being dragged through the mud of the mainstream media. We want to know, but we really don’t. We want to believe, but we really don’t.
One of the intriguing things about sports is the lure of an inherent truth in athletic competition. In “real” life, the rules are blurry and myriad factors collide to form the outcome of everyone’s existence. In sports, the conditions of play are clear and not subject to change depending on societal differences. There is something very refreshing about such clarity, as there is so little of its kind in other aspects of life. All human beings are at the mercy of circumstance to some degree and the world of sports is often viewed as one of the few arenas where anyone, regardless of race or class or any of the things that generally define us, can succeed on merit alone.
Exceptional athletic skill has the uncanny ability to break down the barriers that society has built up over generations, as witnessed by the likes of Jackie Robinson, Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrikson. It does this because it is irrefutable. No one can argue that Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs or that Jesse Owens decimated Hitler’s best in Munich. The truth of athletic competition often reveals the deception and hypocrisy of society, which is part of why we love it. And part of why we hate it. Despite what the commercials try to make you believe, athletes – even the ones that truly inspire us - are susceptible to the same pitfalls as everyone else and the truth of sport reveals that they are just as flawed.
As they say, the truth hurts. It hurts that not all of our heroes play by the rules. It hurts to realize that the sports world is no different than the “real” world, where people routinely cheat and lie to get an advantage. It hurts to lose faith in the achievements and integrity of athletes that may be clean but are cast in doubt by the actions of others. And it hurts that our children are watching and listening intently the whole time.
The truth is that the sports world has always been suspect. We just want to believe that, in athletics, the sanctity of fair play always takes precedent over ill-gotten success. Unfortunately, it does not and never has. Virtually all world-class sports, in virtually all eras, have had to deal with drug abuse in some form. The products and athletes have changed but the rationale and motivation behind the use of performance enhancing substances is the same and as old as competition itself.
The truth is that the lure of fame and fortune is often stronger than the shackles of one’s conscience and the fear of being caught. When using drugs could mean the difference between signing a $100 million long-term contract or fighting for a spot on the team, morality can occasionally take a backseat to a pill or syringe. I can’t be certain, but I would be willing to wager that Jason Giambi is not planning on giving back much of his $13 million per year salary after having admitted to steroid use. Even though he did say he was sorry.
Cycling fans have dealt with this issue for some time and know how baseball fans are feeling right now. Jose Canseco is just baseball’s version of disgruntled ex-pro racer Jesus Manzano. Giambi and disgraced World Time Trial Champion David Millar are very similar characters by way of their lengthy denials, subsequent admissions of guilt and remarkable transformation back into relative acceptance and praise. Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong, the most dominant athletes in their sports, have both been under constant scrutiny due to accusations of drug use. Bonds will likely break the career homerun record and Armstrong holds the title for the most Tour de France wins, but their legacies seem largely dependent on the outcome of ongoing legal investigations into their supposed use of performance enhancing substances. As records continue to be broken by contemporary athletes, the cloud of suspicion grows and further envelopes all who compete, whether clean or not.
So what does this all mean to cycling and baseball fans? Well, not much really, depending on your perspective. It is frustrating to hear the rumors and disheartening to see the confessions but the ugliness of the situation cannot obscure the drama and excitement of the sport. We may be more skeptical of the legitimacy of the performance but we are still fascinated by the thrill of the competition. One of the most beautiful aspects of the sporting world is that it provides continuously unscripted drama, played out in front of our very eyes and the fact that the players may be on drugs doesn’t really take that much away from the immediate excitement of the event.
We true followers of sport, purely because we are fans, experience the same euphoric highs and gut wrenching lows we always have, even when those we cheer for or root against might be juiced. The critical factor is that we ultimately don’t know who is guilty and who is innocent until they either admit it or get caught. And we need to be okay with that. We may choose to speculate as to whether or not certain athletes are clean, but the essence of sport, from baseball to cycling and everything in between, is stronger than the actions of its participants.
So take heart baseball fans and heed a lesson from your cycling brethren. The game is bigger than the players and we should not turn our backs on the sport that has given us so much. Of course it would be wonderful if we knew that all professional athletes were clean, but we never have and in all likelihood, never will. True sports fans are able to see beyond the transgressions of the few and focus on the essence of the sport as a whole. We did not become passionate about baseball or cycling because of Jason Giambi or David Millar and we should certainly not lose that passion because of them or those like them.