In Pursuit of Doped Excellence;
The Lab Animal
Published in The New York Times Magazine
January 18, 2004
On a brisk day last month, I was
led through a warren of red brick buildings on the campus of the
University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia and then up to a
fifth-floor molecular physiology laboratory. I had come to visit
some mice -- and to get a peek at the future of sport.
I had heard about these mice, heard
them called "mighty mice," but I was still shocked at the sight of
them. There they were in several small cages, grouped with normal
mice, all of them nibbling on mouse chow pellets. The mighty mice
looked like a different animal. They were built like cattle, with
thick necks and big haunches. They belonged in some kind of mouse
The Penn researchers have used gene
therapy on these mice to produce increased levels of IGF-1, or
insulinlike growth factor-1, a protein that promotes muscle growth
and repair. They have done this with mice before birth and with mice
at four weeks of age. A result has been a sort of rodent fountain of
youth. The mice show greater than normal muscle size and strength
and do not lose it as they age. Rats altered in the same fashion and
then put into physical training -- they climb little ladders with
weights strapped to their backs -- have experienced a 35 percent
strength gain in the targeted muscles and have not lost any of it
"detraining," as a human being will when he quits going to the gym.
To the scientists, H. Lee Sweeney,
chairman of Penn's department of physiology, and Elisabeth Barton,
an assistant professor, the bizarre musculature of their lab
specimens is exciting. This research could eventually be of immense
benefit to the elderly and those with various "muscle wasting"
"Our impetus, going back to 1988,
was to develop a therapy to stop people from getting weak when they
get old," Sweeney, 50, explained. "They fall and injure themselves.
We wanted to do something about that."
Barton, 39, has the broad shoulders
and athletic build of the competitve cyclist and triathlete she once
was. "You see children with muscular dystrophy, and their parents
are just so broken up because it's so sad," she said. "You see
grandparents who can't get out of bed. These are the people this is
But the Penn team has become acutely aware of a population impatient
to see its research put into practice -- the already strong, seeking
to get stronger still. Sweeney gets their e-mail messages. One came
from a high-school football coach in western Pennsylvania not long
after Sweeney first presented his findings at a meeting of the
American Society for Cell Biology. "This coach wanted me to treat
his whole team," he said. "I told him it was not available for
humans, and it may not be safe, and if I helped him we would all go
to jail. I can only assume he didn't understand how investigational
this is. Or maybe he wasn't winning, and his job was on the line."
Other calls and e-mail messages
have come from weight lifters and bodybuilders. This kind of thing
happens often after researchers publish in even the most arcane
medical and scientific journals. A whole subculture of athletes and
the coaches and chemists who are in the business of improving their
performances is eager for the latest medical advances.
Sweeney knows that what he is doing
works. The remaining question, the one that will require years of
further research to answer, is how safe his methods are. But many
athletes don't care about that. They want an edge now. They want
money and acclaim. They want a payoff for their years of sweat and
sacrifice, at whatever the cost.
"This was serious science, not
sports science," Dr. Gary Wadler, a United States representative to
the World Anti-Doping Agency, said when I spoke to him about the
Penn experiments. "As soon as it gets into any legitimate
publication, bango, these people get ahold of it and want to know
how they can abuse it."
Sweeney's research will probably be
appropriated before it is ever put to its intended medical purpose.
Someone will use it to build a better sprinter or shot-putter.
There is a murky, "Casablanca"-like
quality to sport at the moment. We are in a time of flux. No one is
entirely clean. No one is entirely dirty. The rules are ambiguous.
Everyone, and everything, is a little suspect.
Months before the great slugger
Barry Bonds was summoned before a grand jury in December to answer
questions about his association with the Bay Area Laboratory
Co-Operative, known as Balco, which has been at the center of a
spreading drug scandal after the discovery of a new "designer
steroid," tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), a veteran American sprinter
named Kelli White ran the track meet of her dreams at the World
Championships in Paris. She captured the gold medal in the 100-meter
and 200-meter races, the first American woman ever to win those
sprints in tandem at an outdoor world championship. In both events,
the 5-foot-4, 135-pound White, a tightly coiled ball of power and
speed, exploded to career-best times.
On a celebratory shopping trip on
the Champs-Elysees, White, 26, glimpsed her name in a newspaper
headline and asked a Parisian to translate. She learned that she had
flunked a postrace drug test and that her medals and $120,000 in
prize money were in jeopardy. Later, she acknowledged that she had
taken the stimulant modafinil, claiming that she needed it to treat
narcolepsy but had failed to list it on a disclosure form. What she
added after that was revealing, perhaps more so than she intended.
"After a competition," she told reporters in Europe, "it's kind of
hard to remember everything that you take during the day."
The THG scandal and the attention
focused on Balco, which has advised dozens of top athletes
(including Kelli White) on the use of dietary supplements, has
opened the curtain on a seamy side of sport and on the fascinating
cat-and-mouse game played between rogue chemists and the laboratory
sleuths who try to police them.
But White's statement exposed
another, deeper truth: elite athletes in many different sports
routinely consume cocktails of vitamins, extracts and supplements,
dozens of pills a day -- the only people who routinely ingest more
pills are AIDS patients -- in the hope that their mixes of accepted
drugs will replicate the effects of the banned substances taken by
the cheaters. The cheaters and the noncheaters alike are science
projects. They are the sum total of their innate athletic abilities
and their dedication -- and all the compounds and powders they
ingest and inject.
A narrow tunnel leads to success at
the very top levels of sport. This is especially so in Olympic
nonteam events. An athlete who has devoted his life to sprinting,
for example, must qualify for one of a handful of slots on his
Olympic team. And to become widely known and make real money, he
probably has to win one of the gold medals that is available every
The temptation to cheat is human. In the realm of elite
international sport, it can be irresistible.
After Kelli White failed her drug
test, the United States Olympic Committee revealed that five other
American athletes in track and field had tested positive this summer
for modafinil. Did they all suffer from narcolepsy? That would be
hard to believe. More likely, word of modafinil and its supposed
performance-enhancing qualities (perhaps along with the erroneous
information that it was not detectable) went out on the circuit. It
became the substance du jour.
For athletes, performance-enhancing drugs and techniques raise
issues of health, fair play and, in some cases, legality. For sports
audiences, the fans, the issues are largely philosophical and
On the most basic level, what are
we watching, and why? If we equate achievement with determination
and character, and that, after all, has always been part of our
attachment to sport -- to celebrate the physical expression of the
human spirit -- how do we recalibrate our thinking about sport when
laboratories are partners in athletic success?
Major League Baseball, which came
late to drug testing and then instituted a lenient program, seems to
have decided that the power generated by bulked-up players is good
for the game in the entertainment marketplace. The record-breaking
sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have been virtual folk heroes
and huge draws at the gate. Their runs at the record books became
the dominant narratives of individual seasons. (Barry Bonds has been
less popular only because of a sour public persona.) But the sport
is much changed. Muscle Baseball is the near opposite of what I and
many other fans over 30 were raised on, a game that involved
strategy, bunting, stolen bases, the hit-and-run play -- what is
called Little Ball.
Professional basketball is not
generally suspected of being drenched in steroids and other
performance enhancers. But anyone who has seen even a few minutes of
old games on the ESPN Classic network from, say, 20 years ago, is
immediately struck by the evolution of players' physiques.
Regardless of how it happened, today's N.B.A. players are heavier
and markedly more muscled, and the game is tailored to their
strengths. It is played according to a steroid aesthetic. What was
once a sport of grace and geometry -- athletes moving to open spaces
on the floor, thinking in terms of passing angles -- is now one
primarily of power and aggression: players gravitate to the same
space and try to go over or through one another.
But it is sports that have fixed
standards and cherished records that present fans with the greatest
conundrum. If what's exciting is to see someone pole vault to a new,
unimaginable height -- or become the "world's fastest human" or the
first big-leaguer since Ted Williams to hit .400 -- how do we
respond when our historical frame of reference is knocked askew by
the suspicion, or known fact, that an athlete is powered by a banned
In elite sport, the associations of
competitors who have never been sanctioned for drug use or known to
fail a drug test can still raise questions. Marion Jones, the
breathtaking sprinter and featured American performer of the 2000
Sydney Olympics, was married to the shot-putter C.J. Hunter -- who
was banned from those games after testing positive for the steroid
nandralone. Jones later divorced Hunter, but then trained (briefly)
with Charlie Francis, the disgraced ex-coach of Ben Johnson, the
disgraced Canadian sprinter who was stripped of an Olympic gold
medal. Carl Lewis, the greatest U.S. Olympian in history and a
longtime crusader against performance-enhancing drugs -- it was
Lewis who was outsprinted by the steroid-fueled Ben Johnson at the
1988 Games in Seoul -- has been accused of flunking a drug test of
his own before the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials. Lance Armstrong, brave
cancer survivor, fierce and inspiring competitor, has kept up a long
association with an Italian doctor in the thick of a sprawling drug
scandal in Europe, although Armstrong himself has never come up
positive on a drug test.
Even the substances themselves are
murky. Because the $18-billion-a-year dietary-supplement industry is
(at best) loosely regulated, some of the potions in the vitamin
store at your local mall could well be tainted by steroids or growth
hormones. The Food and Drug Administration just got around to
banning the sale of ephedra last month, long after the herbal
stimulant was blamed for numerous serious health problems, along
with the sudden death last year of Steve Bechler, a Baltimore
The whole situation cries out for a
dose of clarity, but the closer you look, the fuzzier the picture.
Start with the line between what's legal and illegal when it comes
to enhancing performance. The line, already blurry, is likely over
time to disappear entirely.
I visited a U.S. swimmer last
September as technicians sealed up his bedroom, after which they
installed equipment that reduced the amount of oxygen in his room
and turned it into a high-altitude chamber. This is a common and
legal training method that Ed Moses, America's best male
breaststroker, said he hoped would increase his count of
oxygen-carrying red blood cells. A whole team of long-distance
runners sponsored by Nike lives in a much more elaborate simulated
high-altitude dwelling in Portland, Ore. The desired effect of the
so-called "live high, train low" method -- sleep at altitude, train
at sea level -- is the same as you would get from taking
erythropoietin, or EPO, which increases red-blood-cell production
and is banned in sports.
Two other U.S. swimmers, in the
lead-up to the Olympic Games in Sydney, were on a regimen of 25
pills a day, including minerals, proteins, amino acids and the
nutritional supplement creatine, an effective but not necessarily
safe builder of muscle mass. Much of the mix may well have been
useless, but athletes tend to take what's put in front of them for
fear of passing up the one magic pill.
"I like to think we're on the
cutting edge of what can be done nutritionally and with
supplements," the swimmers' coach, Richard Quick, said then as his
athletes prepared for the 2000 games. "If you work hard
consistently, with a high level of commitment, you can do
steroidlike performances." One of his swimmers, Dara Torres, who
increased her bench press from 105 pounds to 205 pounds and swam
career-best times at the age of 33, said at the time that her goal
was to "keep up with the people who are cheating without cheating."
And who are the cheaters? Everyone else. One primary motivation to
cheat is the conviction that everyone else is cheating.
To draw the often arbitrary lines
between performance enhancing and performance neutral, between
health endangering and dicey but take it at your own risk -- to
ensure that sport remains "pure" -- a vast worldwide bureaucracy has
At the lowest level are those who
knock on the doors of athletes in their homes and apartments in the
United States and Europe and in the mountain villages of Kenya and
at the training sites in China and demand "out of competition" urine
samples. Higher up on the pyramid are the laboratories around the
world chosen to scan the urine (and blood) of elite athletes for the
molecular signatures of any of hundreds of banned substances. At the
top of the drug-fighting pyramid are the titans of international
sport -- the same people who cannot see to it that a figure skating
competition is fairly judged.
The titans created the World Anti-Doping Agency, which works with
governments and designated national organizations, including the
United States Anti-Doping Agency. In combination with the
urine-sample collectors, the various couriers in the chain of
custody and the laboratories, W.A.D.A. is charged with making sure
that the world's premier athletes are clean -- and additionally that
they have not concealed drug use through the use of various "masking
agents." (The latest U.S.A.D.A. list specifically prohibits the
following brand names: Defend, Test Free, Test Clean, UrinAid and
Jamaica Me Clean.)
It is all an immensely complicated endeavor, one that requires
W.A.D.A. to keep up with the onrushing science, to disseminate
information to thousands of athletes, to navigate in different legal
systems so that accused competitors get due process and, lastly, to
manage the worldwide trafficking of urine samples. And it is all, in
the end, quite possibly pointless.
Despite the hundreds of people and
tens of millions of dollars devoted to the effort, international and
national sports organizations may just lack the will to catch and
sanction cheaters. The United States, specifically, has been singled
out as negligent in its oversight. "The real issue is that USA Track
and Field has become a complete and utter scofflaw," the W.A.D.A.
president, Richard Pound, a Canadian, told me. "They have gone to
extraordinary lengths to hide identities and data and to exonerate
athletes who have tested positive."
Can you really have a serious antidoping effort without the full
cooperation of the world's most powerful nation -- and most powerful
sports nation? It's hard to see how.
The tougher question is whether it
will be scientifically possible to stay ahead of the cheaters. The
rogue scientists and coach-gurus have been winning for years, and
they have ever more tools available to them. THG, which set off the
Balco inquiry, is only a slightly more clever version of an old
thing: an anabolic steroid -- the kind of blunt builder of muscle
mass and strength prevalent in sports since the 1950's. But its
discovery required an insider tip, and THG is child's play compared
with what's coming in the near future (if, in fact, it is not here
already): genetic manipulation in order to improve athletic
Ultimately, the debate over athletic doping extends beyond sport.
"The current doping agony," says John Hoberman, a University of
Texas at Austin professor who has written extensively on performance
drugs, "is a kind of very confused referendum on the future of human
Pete Rose was the prototypical
"self-made" athlete, which is code for a sort of seeming nonathlete
who makes the most of his meager abilities. But fans overlooked
important genetic traits that made him baseball's all-time hits
leader -- chiefly, uncommon durability that allowed him to play 24
seasons virtually injury free. And what did Rose do to attain that?
Nothing, really. As the son of a semipro athlete who played sandlot
baseball and football into his early 40's, he came by that blocky,
unbreakable body by way of genetic inheritance. In the off-season,
Rose maintained himself by playing casual basketball a couple of
times a week and eating greasy food and heaping bowls of potato
When it comes to elite sport, there is no such thing as self-made.
No amount of dedication can turn someone of average ability into a
world-class sprinter, an N.B.A. player or a champion marathoner. You
can't be an Olympic pistol shooter without some innate steadiness of
hand or a Tour de France cyclist without a far-above-average
efficiency at moving oxygen to muscles. Even a humdrum, physically
unimpressive player on a major-league baseball team has something --
usually extraordinary hand-eye coordination -- that is not apparent
to those who regard athletic gifts only in terms of great size,
speed, endurance or power.
The former Olympic track coach
Brooks Johnson once told me that sport at its highest level should
be viewed as a competition waged among "genetic freaks." He
mentioned Carl Lewis and Michael Jordan. But anyone who reaches the
top echelon of Olympic competition or draws a paycheck for playing
sports professionally should be considered in the same category. You
cannot will yourself into an elite athlete, or get there through
punishing workouts, without starting out way ahead of the rest of
the human race.
You may, through pure dedication,
be able to jump one level -- from a middle-of-the-pack Olympic
sprinter to the final heat, from a marginal N.F.L. prospect to a
midround draft pick. Chemical enhancement can produce more
significant improvements, but the principle is the same. You've got
to start out as a member of the athletic elite.
At the 1996 Summer Olympics in
Atlanta, a middling Irish swimmer named Michelle Smith de Bruin
raised suspicions when she won three gold medals. She later flunked
drug tests. But before the presumed cheating, she was already a
competitor on the international swim scene, not a lap swimmer at the
The use and abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in elite sport, or
doping, as it has been called since around 1900, is a mutant form of
an exclusive competition. It is an effort by individuals who are
already part of a thin slice of humanity -- the genetic freaks -- to
gain an edge against one another, to exceed their physiological
limits in a way that they could not through pure training. (The word
itself is believed to derive from the Dutch word dop, an alcoholic
beverage consumed by Zulu warriors before battle.)
While systematic doping -- with the
collaboration of chemists, doctors, coaches and trainers -- is a
modern phenomenon, scientific interest in athletes is not new. The
medical establishment once viewed athletes with curiosity and
occasionally with alarm. The act of training and pushing yourself to
physical limits was considered dangerous or even a form of sickness.
Sports science was observational, an opportunity to study the body
in motion by looking at individuals at the extremes of human
The British physiologist A.V. Hill,
a Nobel laureate in 1922, went to Cornell to study sprinters
because, as he wrote, "matters of very great scientific interest can
be found in the performances of that extraordinary machine, the
human athlete." John Hoberman, the historian of sports doping, has
written that scientists and doctors viewed the high-performance
athlete as "a wonder of nature -- a marvelous phenomenon that did
not require improvement."
Certainly, athletes have long sought their own chemical and
nutritional means to enhance performance. The ancient Greeks ran and
wrestled in the nude because nothing, not even fabric, was supposed
to interfere with the purity of sport, yet they ate mushrooms,
sesame seeds, dried figs and herbs that were believed to give a
precompetition energy boost. Marathoners and cyclists as recently as
a century ago competed under the influence of strychnine, which is
both a stimulant and a poison. Cyclists also used caffeine, cocaine,
alcohol and even heroin.
What changed everything -- what
transformed performance-enhancing efforts from the realm of
superstition into a true science -- was the isolation of the male
hormone testosterone in 1935. That led to the development by the
late 30's of synthesized testosterone variants, or anabolic
steroids. The difference between steroids and all previous
performance enhancers was that steroids demonstrably worked -- and
they worked really well.
Nearly every drug used by athletes
to boost performance started out as a therapeutic miracle.
Steroids are still prescribed for
men with serious testosterone deficiencies. AIDS patients and others
with muscle-wasting conditions are dosed with steroids.
Until the mid-80's, people
suffering from severe anemia, as a result of chronic renal failure
or other causes, had to undergo frequent blood transfusions. The
development of recombinant human erythropoietin was a godsend.
Instead of transfusions, anemics could get injections to boost their
But what would the effect of EPO be on a person with a normal or
better than normal red blood count? What could it do for an already
genetically gifted, highly trained endurance athlete? Just what you
would expect: make a superendurance athlete.
EPO swept the professional cycling
circuit in Europe like a plague, nearly wrecking the sport. There
were police raids, huge stockpiles of EPO confiscated from cyclists'
hotel rooms, arrests, trials, wholesale suspensions of competitors.
"Each racer had his little suitcase with dopes and syringes," a
former doctor for European professional cycling teams told a British
newspaper. "They did their own injections."
EPO migrated to other endurance
sports, including cross-country skiing, marathoning and
orienteering. Inevitably, it showed its fatal flip side.
"In simplest terms, EPO turns on the bone marrow to make more red
blood cells," says Gary Wadler, the American delegate to W.A.D.A.
"But there's a very delicate balance. You can have too much EPO. The
body is a finely tuned instrument. It has feedback mechanisms to
keep it in balance. What these athletes are often trying to do is
get around the feedback, to trick their own bodies."
Between 1989 and 1992, seven
Swedish competitors in orienteering -- a mix of running and hiking
that is sometimes called "cross country with brains" -- died,
apparently from heart attacks. Nearly all were in their 20's. As
many as 18 Dutch and Belgian cyclists died under similarly
mysterious circumstances between 1987 and 1990.
"At first they said it was some
kind of virus, a respiratory virus," Wadler says. "But what kind of
virus only knocks off the most fit individuals in their country? The
autopsies were private. All the deaths were not definitively linked.
But it was EPO. That was obvious to a lot of people."
For weight lifters and competitors
in the "throwing" sports of shot-put, javelin, discus and hammer,
the performance enhancer of choice has long been steroids. Anabolic
steroids (anabolic means tissue building) increase muscle mass and
enhance the explosiveness needed for a wide range of other athletic
endeavors: sprinting, jumping, swimming, serving a tennis ball,
swinging a baseball bat, delivering a hit on the football field.
They afford an additional benefit in a violent sport like football
because one of their side effects is aggressiveness or, in extreme
cases, so-called roid rage.
Their use is starkly high risk,
high reward. Other side effects include liver tumors, impotence,
breast enlargement and shrunken testicles in men and male sexual
characteristics in women. (Some of the side effects for women
include enlargement of the clitoris, deepening of the voice, facial
hair and male-pattern baldness.)
If you want a peek at the future of
performance-enhanced sport -- at what drug-laced athletes can
accomplish -- look back to the mid-80's, the apex of East Germany's
shameful and ruthlessly effective doping program. The East Germans
were not the only practitioners of extreme pharmacological sport,
only the most flagrant and well organized. (East Germany is the only
nation known to have systematically doped athletes, often minors,
without their knowledge.)
"Things really got out of hand in the 1970's, 80's and 90's,"
Richard Pound of the W.A.D.A. says. Even as the science of detection
improved, the International Olympic Committee and other global
sports bodies were constrained, he says, by a "hesitancy to offend"
either side while the world was still divided between East and West.
"We looked away, and it snowballed."
Steroid usage works particularly well for women athletes, because
they naturally make only a fraction of the testosterone that men
produce. John Hoberman says: "In the 80's, what we saw was this new
breed of monster athletes, particularly on the female side."
Certain records from this heyday of
unpoliced steroid abuse -- particularly in sports in which raw
strength is a primary requirement -- suggest that performances were
achieved then that are unlikely to be matched by a clean competitor.
The top 14 men's hammer throws in history occurred between 1984 and
1988. In the women's shot-put, you must go all the way down to the
35th farthest throw in history to find one that occurred after 1988.
Until last April, the top 10 men's
shot-put throws in history occurred between 1975 and 1990. Then, at
a competition in Kansas, the American shot-putter Kevin Toth finally
broke into that elite group. His distance, 22.67 meters, was the
farthest that anyone had put the shot in 13 years. Six months later,
Toth's name was among the first to surface in the Balco scandal.
Published reports said he had tested positive for THG, the new
In women's sprinting in the 80's,
the star -- and still the world-record holder in the 100- and
200-meter dashes -- was Florence Griffith Joyner, FloJo. Americans
loved her style, her body-hugging track suits, her long and
fabulously decorated nails, her ebullience. Elsewhere in the world,
and even in the United States among those with a knowledge of track
and field, FloJo's exploits were viewed with more skepticism.
After Joyner died in 1998, at 38
(the cause was related to a seizure), a strange hybrid of a column
appeared in the New York Times sports section. Written by Pat
Connolly, who had coached Evelyn Ashford, the woman whose 100-meter
record Joyner smashed, it was partly a tribute and partly a
posthumous indictment. "Then, almost overnight, Florence's face
changed -- hardened along with her muscles that now bulged as if she
had been born with a barbell in her crib," Connolly wrote. "It was
difficult not to wonder if she had found herself an East German
coach and was taking some kind of performance-enhancing drugs."
FloJo had been a very good, but
never a champion, world-class sprinter. Her 1988 performance in
Seoul was -- in the damning parlance of international sport --
We don't normally think of baseball
in the context of hammer throwing, shot-putting or women's
sprinting. But in terms of anomalous performance, baseball is East
Germany in the 1980's: a frontier.
Just as in the steroid-drenched
days of Olympic sport, a deep suspicion has attached itself to some
of the latest records in baseball. This accompanies the
grotesqueness of the appearance of some of the players. Curt
Schilling, the All-Star pitcher, memorably told Sports Illustrated
in 2002, "Guys out there look like Mr. Potato Head, with a head and
arms and six or seven body parts that just don't look right."
I'm not sure whom, exactly,
Schilling had in mind, but for me, his comment recalls a particular
photograph taken in the 2002 season. The subjects are the home-run
kings Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, sitting together, both of them
with thick necks and bloated-looking faces. They look, well,
freakish -- as well as starkly different from their appearance as
young players. Bonds entered baseball lean and wiry strong, much
like his late father, the All-Star outfielder Bobby Bonds. Sosa,
early in his career, was not particularly big and showed little
power at the plate.
The question of how many home runs
it is possible to hit in one season is more open-ended than, say,
the fastest possible time a person can achieve in the 100-meter
dash. Factors like the size of the ballpark, liveliness of the ball
and skill of opposing pitchers affect the outcome. Nevertheless, a
century's worth of experience amounted to a pretty persuasive case
that around 60 home runs, for whatever combination of reasons, was
about the limit.
In 1927, Babe Ruth slugged 60,
which remained the record until 1961, when Roger Maris (in a
slightly longer season) hit 61. But in 1998 Mark McGwire of the St.
Louis Cardinals obliterated Maris's record by hitting 70 home runs.
Late in that season, a reporter snooping around McGwire's locker
spotted a bottle of androstenedione, or andro, a substance usually
described as a steroid "precursor" that provides a steroidlike
effect (and that is still unregulated in the major leagues). McGwire
was forced to acknowledge that his strength was neither entirely
"God given" nor acquired solely in the weight room. But at least
McGwire entered baseball already big and as a prodigious home-run
hitter; he hit 49 in his first big-league season, a record for
rookies. Contrast that with the career arcs of Bonds and Sosa, which
are unlike any in the game's long history.
Bonds had never hit more than 46
home runs until the 2000 season, and in most years his total was in
the 30's. But at age 35, when players normally are on the downside
of their production, he hit 49 home runs. The following season he
turned into superman, breaking McGwire's record by hitting 73.
Bonds's totals in the next two
seasons, 46 and 45, were artificially low because pitchers walked
him a staggering 346 times. His new capabilities had thrown the
balance between pitcher and hitter completely out of whack: the new
Barry Bonds was too good for the game. He needed a league all his
Sosa's progression was even more unusual. In his first eight
major-league seasons he averaged 22 home runs, although his totals
did steadily increase and he hit 40 in 1996, then a career high. He
was selected an All-Star exactly once. Unlike Bonds, he was not
considered among baseball's elite players.
Then in 1998, McGwire's record-breaking year, Sammy Sosa hit 66 home
runs -- 6 more than the great Babe Ruth had hit in his best season.
Sosa wasn't done. The following year he hit 63, followed by seasons
of 50, 64 and 49 -- the best five-year total in baseball history.
That there is rampant steroid use
in baseball, at all levels, is undeniable. Ken Caminiti, the 1996
National League M.V.P., admitted his own use in a Sports Illustrated
article in 2002 and estimated that at least half the players in the
big leagues built strength with steroids. The former slugger Jose
Canseco has acknowledged steroid use. In a 2002 USA Today survey of
556 big-league players, 44 percent said they felt pressure to take
Last year, The Washington Post
published a sad series of stories revealing that teenage prospects
in the baseball-rich Dominican Republic, the source of nearly
one-fourth of all players signed to U.S. pro contracts, are taking
veterinary steroids to try to get strong enough to attract the
interest of scouts.
Whether Sosa and Bonds have built home-run power chemically cannot
be known definitively. Nobody has presented evidence that they have,
and both vehemently deny it. Sosa's name has not surfaced in the
Balco case, and he has not testified before the grand jury.
Bonds did testify in December. The
home of his personal trainer and boyhood friend, Greg Anderson, has
been searched by federal agents. Bonds has acknowledged patronizing
Balco, which under Victor Conte, its founder, has specialized in
testing athletes' blood to determine the levels of elements like
copper, chromium and magnesium and then recommending supplements.
Experts I talked to say they consider Conte's theories medical mumbo
jumbo, but he consulted with dozens of top athletes, including
Marion Jones; Amy Van Dyken, an Olympic champion swimmer; and Bill
Romanowski, a linebacker in the N.F.L. Jason Giambi of the Yankees
was also a client and also testified before the grand jury.
In an article that appeared last
June, Bonds told Muscle and Fitness magazine: "I visit Balco every
three to six months. They check my blood to make sure my levels are
where they should be. Maybe I need to eat more broccoli than I
normally do. Maybe my zinc and magnesium intakes need to increase."
Bob Ryan, a veteran Boston Globe
sports columnist, is among the baseball devotees who want to believe
all Bonds is taking is broccoli and vitamins. But with both Bonds
and Sosa, the presumption of innocence he would like to grant them
clashes with the accumulation of circumstantial evidence and his own
"I knew every baseball benchmark
from the time I was 10 or 11 years old," Ryan says. "I knew 60, and
I knew 61. I knew 714 (the former career home-run mark held by Babe
Ruth). Stats frame who a player is. They're part of the romance of
the game, the enjoyment."
Bonds, with 658 career home runs,
could surpass Hank Aaron's all-time total of 755 in just two or
three more seasons. If he does, what will it mean? Will it carry the
romance of other cherished baseball records? "Bonds was a leadoff
man who could run early in his career, and now he is this hulking
slugger," Ryan says. "Sammy, same thing. You want to believe it's
all due to weight training and nutrition, but you have these guys
hitting 40 home runs, maximum, and then well into their careers,
they're in the 60's and 70's. It doesn't happen."
But Ryan is not seeking much new information on this subject. "I'm
afraid of what you're going to tell me next," he says at one point
in our conversation. "I'm living in some sort of denial. I'm afraid
to look under the rock."
The world Anti-Doping Agency,
imperfect as it may be, is generally considered an improvement over
the patchwork approach to drug enforcement that preceded it. Created
in 1999 at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne,
Switzerland, the agency was intended to bring coherence to
antidoping regulations and "harmonization" among all the different
nations and sports bodies expected to enforce them. In theory, it is
the ultimate authority on matters of drugs and sport -- looming over
national Olympic committees and the national and international
federations of all the individual sports and making it more
difficult for those parochial interests to protect athletes caught
W.A.D.A.'s medical committee devoted several years to compiling an
impressively voluminous list of banned substances. But the role of
W.A.D.A. and its president, Richard Pound, is mainly bureaucratic
and political. W.A.D.A. can't slow science down -- or influence a
culture that hungrily pursues human enhancements of all kinds.
"All of these issues are going to
be moot in 20 or 30 years," says Paul Root Wolpe, a professor of
psychiatry at Penn and the chief of bioethics at NASA. "We already
are seeing a blurring of the line between foods and drugs, so-called
nutraceuticals. In the future, it will be more common, accepted.
We'll eat certain engineered foods to be sharp for a business
meeting, to increase confidence, to enhance endurance before a race
Currently, in determining whether
to put something on its banned list, W.A.D.A. considers whether a
substance is performance enhancing, contrary to the spirit of sport
or potentially dangerous to health. "If it meets two of the three
criteria, we are likely to put it on the list," Pound says.
But the first two criteria are
ambiguous. Steroids and EPO are clearly performance enhancing. But
so might Gatorade be, if you believe its advertising and all the
data on the "science of hydration" disseminated by the Gatorade
Sports Science Institute. And plenty of sports drinks claim to do
more than Gatorade. "You identify a line and draw it somewhere,"
Pound says. "Why is it the 100-meter dash and not the 97-meter dash?
It just is."
Between Gatorade and anabolic
steroids lie all those powders and pills and injectibles that elite
athletes put into their bodies, in quantities and combinations that
may enhance performance or may prove innocuous. In most cases, no
one is quite sure.
Less open to interpretation is
"potentially dangerous to health." Any medical or pseudo-medical
activity that takes place underground or in the black market is, by
definition, dangerous. Nearly everyone, regardless of how they feel
about abortion, will agree that it's more dangerous when it occurs
in a back alley. Steroid use, dicey in most situations, is certainly
more so when it takes place in the dark.
So issues of health are the
strongest rationale for W.A.D.A. and the whole antidoping effort: to
protect athletes from their own worst instincts. (Though the sports
world is selective about its concerns for athletes' health.
Offensive lineman in the N.F.L. just keep on getting fatter. The
typical career of a major-league pitcher usually involves the
gradual deterioration of shoulder and elbow.) But safety is going to
become less of an issue.
"Right now we have a crude way of
enhancing muscle mass," Wolpe says. "Years from now we'll look back
on it, and it will seem low tech. When it's all on the dining-room
table, there will not be the same kind of health issues we are
seeing now with the unregulated and illicit supplements and drugs."
What I learned during my visit to
Lee Sweeney's lab at the University of Pennsylvania is that lifting
his research for purposes of athletic enhancement is not from some
sci-fi future. It's possible -- now.
Sweeney and his team know for sure
they can build muscle mass and strength. Their next step as they try
to determine if their methods are safe for humans will be to
experiment on larger animals, most likely dogs with muscular
I asked Elisabeth Barton what would
happen if some rogue nation or outlaw conglomerate of athletes asked
her to disregard scientific prudence and create a human version of
the mighty mice. Could she do it?
"Could I?" she answered. "Oh, yeah,
it's easy. It's doable. It's a routine method that's published.
Anyone who can clone a gene and work with cells could do it. It's
not a mystery."
Behind her, Sweeney nodded his head
in agreement. "It's not like growing a third arm or something," he
said. "You could get there if you worked at it."
Sweeney said that once someone decided to use gene therapy to
enhance performance, "you would not be limited to what I'm doing.
You could change the endurance of the muscle or modulate the speed
-- all the performance characteristics. All the biology is there. If
someone said, 'Here's $10 million -- I want you to do everything you
can think of in terms of sports,' you could get pretty imaginative."
To strengthen leg muscles for a
sprinter, Sweeney said, he would "put the whole leg on bypass. I
would isolate the leg and put in the virus through the blood. It
would be more efficient than injections, which you would need a lot
of because you're dealing with large muscles. But this is nothing a
vascular surgeon couldn't do."
Could one already be doing it? "I
don't know that it's not happening."
IGF-1 is already available on the Internet in ingestible form. It is
advertised as a component of various powders and pills, and in this
form it falls somewhere in that vast, murky area of legal,
quasi-legal, black-market and plainly illegal substances for sale in
the semiregulated supplement industry.
But Sweeney says that any
nongenetic transfer of the protein would be ineffective -- it would
not circulate in the blood in levels high enough to build muscle --
and unsafe, because to the extent that it does circulate, it would
target nonskeletal muscle, including the heart. (The mighty mice
have shown no signs of enlarged hearts or other organs and no sign
at all that the IGF-1 is circulating in their bloodstreams.)
For the elite athlete, that would
be one of the benefits of genetic IGF-1. It wouldn't circulate in
the blood. It would be detectable only through a muscle biopsy. It
took a long time for the world's athletes to agree to submit to
blood tests; it's difficult to imagine them consenting to having
investigatory needles stuck in their muscles.
W.A.D.A. invited geneticists and
others involved in the latest medical research to a conference in
2002 on Long Island. The antidoping officials were (and still are)
focused on the IGF-1 research at Penn, so Lee Sweeney was there. He
listened as Richard Pound tried a very tough sell.
The W.A.D.A. president told the
scientists that he certainly appreciated the work they were doing,
knew that they approached it with single-minded dedication and
understood full well that nothing was more important than seeking
cures for dread diseases. He then talked about another "humanistic
activity" that he said was already threatened by science of a
certain kind -- the current science of performance enhancement --
and could be ruined by the misuse of their research. As they moved
forward, Pound asked, could they somewhere keep in mind the
interests of sport?
As Pound recalls, the initial
responses he got were somewhat dismissive: "They said we work at the
gene level. You can't really tell what was altered from what was
Pound, a lawyer, then asked
rhetorically: "What if I could assure the Nobel Prize in Medicine
would be awarded to the person in this room who figured out how to
make a test to determine if a competitor had been genetically
enhanced? You could do it, right?"
Pound got an acknowledgment that
detection might be possible with enough resources devoted to it.
Lee Sweeney generously consults
with W.A.D.A. and other antidoping officials. He's sympathetic to
their cause. He just says it's hopeless. "There will come a day when
they just have to give up," he says. "It's maybe 20 years away, but
There is a parallel from the past
for the entire issue of performance-enhancing drugs, one tied to
what was once another unwelcome substance in sports: money. Some
casual followers of the Olympic movement may still not fully realize
that nearly all of the participants are now paid professionals.
There never was any big announcement that the cherished concept of
amateurism -- athletes competing for the pure love of sport -- had
been discarded. But over time, the changed reality has been
accepted. Top athletes profiting from under-the-table payments? The
public didn't care, and the ideal of amateurism expired, outdated
One of the last things Pound said
to me indicated that he knows, too, that W.A.D.A.'s mission has an
expiration date pending. Maybe genetic enhancements really won't
work for athletes, he speculated. "If you strengthen the muscle to
three times its normal strength, what happens when you break out of
the starting blocks? Do you rip the muscle right off the bone?"
Pound seemed to like the thought of this gruesome image. He paused,
then extended the thought. "That would be nice if that happened," he
said. "It would be self-regulating."
Copyright © 2002