After winning the Tour de France, Floyd Landis was hailed as an American hero who epitomized all that is good and glorious about cycling. A few days later, when it was announced that a urine test he took during the tour had revealed a suspiciously high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, he was condemned as a cheater who had disgraced the sport, perhaps ruining it forever.
Testosterone is powerful stuff, causing outbursts of anger and anxiety in people who have not even taken it. The antidote for those reactions is not a renewed commitment to drug-free sports but the acceptance of steroids as one of many tools athletes use to enhance their performance.
First let me state the obvious: Cheating is wrong. If you agree to follow certain rules, no matter how arbitrary or silly they may be, you should follow them.
Yet if you believe no one else follows them -- an impression reinforced by the very sportswriters who bemoan the ubiquity of performance-enhancing drugs -- the temptation not to be the only chump who does is strong. Furthermore, widespread violation of the rules, despite testing and severe sanctions, casts doubt on their wisdom.
The rules' supporters seem to think steroid use and other banned methods fundamentally change an athletic contest. "We have signed a television contract for a sports event and not for a display of the performance of pharmaceuticals," said the editor in chief of the German TV network ZDF, threatening to drop coverage of the Tour de France in response to the Landis scandal.
That over-the-top reaction, typical of the angry, hurt tone that pervades commentary about once-admired athletes implicated in doping, grossly exaggerates the power of performance-enhancing drugs. Testosterone, for example, helps build muscle and hasten recovery during training; but as an expert on the hormone told The New York Times, "no one has been able to show clearly that testosterone improves endurance" during a competition.
Landis may have believed a short-term testosterone boost would help him win one of the world's most grueling athletic contests. But it probably had little or no effect on his performance in Stage 17, when he climbed from 11th to third place, gritting his teeth through the pain caused by a degenerative hip condition.
To judge from some of the hand wringing over Landis' test results, however, any cyclist could have done just as well, given the right dose of testosterone. New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden, who called Landis' performance "an exhilarating exhibition of strength, speed, ingenuity and heart," simultaneously worried that "everything we think we see" in athletics "is little more than a sports mirage."
Suppose Landis was telling the truth when he claimed he had naturally high testosterone levels, and suppose this characteristic gave him a competitive edge. Would that render his amazing accomplishment a "mirage"? Obviously not, unless an athlete's innate talent also gives him an unfair advantage and makes him a fake.
To see how untenable the natural/artificial distinction is, consider altitude tents and rooms, which simulate the low-oxygen environment of high elevations in an attempt to improve endurance by spurring the production of red blood cells. The World Anti-Doping Association is considering a ban on this widely used technique, which its ethics committee deems contrary to "the spirit of sport."
If performance-enhancing drugs violate "the spirit of sport," it's hard to see why performance-enhancing rooms don't. If anything, they're even less natural than steroids. Yet banning high-altitude simulations arguably would make contests less fair, giving an advantage to athletes who happen to live at high elevations or can afford to move there.
Athletes use all sorts of technology to improve their fitness and performance, ranging from multivitamins to weight machines, and they are properly judged by how well they use them. Instead of arbitrarily prohibiting certain techniques, why not level the playing field by repealing the prohibitions?