The Daily Bongo

Where Have All The Heroes Gone?

I remember the sports heroes of my youth. Most of the stories were colored by my father's rendering of them. He would tell me about Lou Gehrig, Jolting Joe DiMaggio, and Roberto Clemente. My father would tell me about their exploits in glowing terms and with admiration shining from his eyes. They were graceful athletes who through hard work had achieved remarkable goals. Not only were these men admired for their overall athletic ability, they were also admired for the strength of their characters and moral integrity. Who could better display a more humanitarian spirit than Roberto Clemente who gave his life trying to get much needed supplies to earthquake victims in his native Nicaragua? As my father would tell me the stories, he would stress that these were men to be admired and respected for what they did for their sport. Of course, these heroes had personal lives, but that didn't intrude on the public persona. There may have been dark elements to the person's character, but they were well-hidden if they existed. Of course we heard about Babe Ruth's problems with alcohol, but that didn't detract from the Babe's outstanding baseball achievements. A child could aspire to be the next Ruth or DiMaggio. All that was needed was to have some innate talent and hard work. It wasn't easy, but then what is? So who are the sports heroes of today's children?

We hear the stories every day in the news. Whenever I tune into a sports show, I know that I will hear about the latest steroid abuse story. Yes the athlete does have to physically work hard, but the drugs make the achievement easier. Look at the pictures of the athletes of yesteryear and those of today. You would not think that the black and white photo of Joe DiMaggio is one of a world class baseball player. The body of today's athlete has a superhuman look to it. Muscles grow on top of muscle. Arms are as big as, if not bigger, than the average person's leg. Necks no longer exist. Heads seem to be balanced on at the peak of a mountain of delts. Can a child develop such a physique by pure exercise and will? That's where the performance and growth enhancing drugs come into play. If you want to compete, you have to take performance enhancing drugs. "Everyone else is doing it. If I don't, there's no way that I can compete" is the refrain heard from the young athlete. After all, it can't hurt you. All of the athletes do it, and they wouldn't if there were physical repercussions, would they? It would defeat the purpose. Drugs are available now for the athlete to build muscle for strength, to carry oxygen to the muscles for endurance, mask the pain of injuries, and to give the extra rush needed to get the job done. Of course, the sports organizations that care develop tests that are given randomly in the hopes of catching any abuse. Athletes are smarter though. They go to companies, like Balco Labs, that have developed drugs for which there are no tests. The athlete takes other drugs to mask the existence of the drug in their system. Drugs are taken that thins the blood and lessens the likelihood of finding drugs like EPO. The means and methods are out there for drugs to be taken without detection, and the athletes take full advantage of all means.

So who are the athletes that kids can look up to? Can they look up to Marion Jones? She was a customer of Balco Labs. Of course, she denies any wrong doing, but you have to wonder, especially when this news is taken in conjunction with her husband's steroid abuse and the fact that Jones did not perform up to expectations after Balco was busted. We have another Balco customer, Barry Bonds. Bonds was bigger and stronger in his late 30s than when in his 20s. Usually athletic performance diminishes with age, but not for Bonds. After going to Balco, Bonds' statistics jumped and he became a much more powerful hitter. Bonds has always denied drug use. As he has stated, he thought that he was taking flaxseed supplements and a muscle liniment (like Ben-Gay). Do we really believe that an athlete willingly ingests mystery pills or expect flaxseed to give immense muscle growth? Then we have Rafael Palmeiro who denied before Congress that he ever took steroids, even though Jose Canseco stated that he did. Palmeiro tested positive recently for steroids. As Bonds did, Palmeiro denied that he ever knowingly took steroids.

Who is left to admire? The one person that I thought was untouchable was Lance Armstrong. What is there not to admire? We have someone who fought a battle with cancer and won, someone who epitomizes hard work, someone that you can look up to with pride. Of course there were always rumblings from some in the cycling world that Armstrong took drugs. We didn't believe them though. It was just petty sniping from others who were jealous of Armstrong's hard work and achievements. Then a lab in France found EPO (an endurance enhancing drug) in a blood sample of Armstrong's that had been retained after his 1999 Tour de France win. Armstrong, of course, denies that he took EPO. He tells us that the drug was added after the blood was taken from his body and that it is an attempt by the envious French to besmirch his achievement. What is the truth? Will we find out, or will Armstrong forever be tainted with the smear of performance enhancing drugs? I would like to believe him, but I fear that it is just another of those instances were any excuse is used to avoid responsibility.

So what's a child to do? Who does he or she admire? Until strict, strong punishments are promised by sports organizations like Major League Baseball or the NFL for the first positive evidence of drug use by an athlete, things won't change. What hope is there for the young person who wants to go into sports? Practice hard and remember to get your steroid injection? Perhaps we should stop wasting our hero worship on athletes. Maybe we should transfer our admiration to people who deserve it. Let's admire the father who gives up the overtime money at work to coach his daughter's soccer team, or the doctor who volunteers his time at a health clinic in the poorer neighborhoods. As we compare the statistics of today's athletes, we will have to make the mental note that the statistics were generated in the steroid age and were probably enhanced artificially. The line of pre and post performance enhancing drug will be clearly marked. "Ah yes," we will say, "he batted 80 that year, but it was in the steroid age. If he didn't have the help of steroids who knows what he would have done?" Until drastic steps are taken to punish first time positives, our young children will not know what athletic performance without drugs looks like.

August 25, 2005