Twenty years ago this week, Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100m gold medal because of a positive drug test, thus dragging society (Canadian society, anyway) kicking and screaming into the era of steroids. Steroids had already been used in sports for years, if not decades, at that point, but society generally ignored it. It wasn’t until Johnson’s disgrace that it became a topic that people actually talked about.
Johnson became a national hero by (a) winning the gold medal and thereby being informally named “Fastest man alive”, and (b) beating the hated Carl Lewis on the biggest international stage possible. This was another one of those “I remember where I was when…” events — I was just starting second year at the University of Waterloo, and that particular Friday evening, I was at the student bar known as Fed Hall. When the race came on, they put it on the big screen and turned the dance music off, and everyone watched. 9.69 seconds later, we erupted into shouts of jubilation. The joy lasted three days.
The next Monday, we got the news. Johnson had tested positive for steroids and had been disqualified. The hated Carl Lewis was given the gold medal. Canada’s heartbreak was as strong as its joy had been only three days earlier. Some Canadians felt not only embarrassed but ashamed, as if the entire country had failed the drug test. It was then that people started to take drugs seriously in sports, talking about a “level playing field” and all that. It turned out that a level playing field wasn’t the problem — since everyone was on the juice anyway, you had to take the drugs in order for there to be a level playing field. Some even suggested that steroids in sports were no big deal for this reason. Never mind that the drugs made all the records artificial. Never mind that they were dangerous. Never mind that teenage athletes began taking steroids earlier than ever before, because they started to believe that without taking the drugs, they would never have a chance of success.
However, these discussions didn’t really start south of the border until until it was discovered that Mark McGwire was using andro and then José Canseco wrote his book. Not until it became obvious that their sacred game of baseball had been tainted did the Americans become interested. At this point, however, they went nuts, launching investigations and bringing players in front of Congress. MLB had buried its head in the sand for years, never admitting that there was any kind of problem and even now, they administer all the drug tests themselves, refusing to have an impartial third party do the testing (as the Mitchell Report recommended). And since they started “policing” themselves, guess what? No major positive tests. Sure, they nailed Rafael Palmeiro, but his career was over anyway. They do throw the odd minor leaguer under the bus now and again, but since there’s no accountability for the tests, you’re never going to see a significant player get caught, even if they walk around the clubhouse with needles hanging out of their ass. The NFL is just as bad — we all know that there are steroids all over the NFL, but their testing procedures are such that very few get caught and the ones that do are suspended for all of four games. Ridiculous.
These sports leagues say that they want to get rid of the steroids for good, but that it’s just not possible. Well, they’re probably right that it’s not possible to completely get rid of them, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t bother trying. If they really want to, here’s how it can be done:
- Test each player at least once per season, but possibly more. Have no limit on the number of times a player can be tested in a season.
- Players are chosen at random and given no advance notice of when they will be tested.
- Tests will be administered by a company that’s not under the control of the league. The number of positive results should have no bearing on how much the company gets paid. The cost should be borne equally by the league and the players union.
- Players that test positive for the first time are suspended for half a season. Players that test positive a second time are banned for life. All positive tests will be publicly announced.
The goals are (a) to make it impossible for a player to know when he will next be tested, and (b) to make the risk of getting caught far outweigh the potential gains from using the drugs. Once that’s done, will the game be completely clean? No, but only the stupid players will still be using. Stupid players, by definition, will not be smart enough to avoid getting caught, and so will be tossed from the game in short order. Hopefully, this will allow the game to return to the days where you could watch someone hit 50 home runs in a season and marvel at his athleticism rather than wondering if he’s on the juice.