This is not meant to cast aspersions on Peyton Manning or any of the other prominent athletes implicated for obtaining banned performance-enhancing substances in the recent Al Jazeera report. (Those named all denied the allegations, and two have filed defamation suits.) And this certainly isn’t intended to condone doping in sports.
But a matter-of-fact reaction to the Al Jazeera piece is to recall a 40-year-old declaration by two-time Olympic weightlifter Mark Cameron. It was around 1976 when Cameron suggested that if his fellow competitors were told that eating scouring pads would make them stronger, there would not be a clean pot within miles of the gym.
About that time, on an assignment to cover the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, I was so bombarded with heavy hints of widespread doping that I began to wonder if it was possible for anyone to qualify for the Olympics without a prescription. In the weight events, particularly, American athletes were claiming that virtually all of the top international competitors were engaging in prohibited chemical activity. And so they must as well. Discus thrower Jay Silvester, who had won a silver medal in the previous Games, estimated that “99 to 100 percent of the world-class weightmen use steroids.”
When asked directly if he was in that category, Silvester said, “No comment.” The discus winner at those trials, Mac Wilkins, responded to the same question with this wink-and-nod quote: “Aren’t steroids supposedly illegal?”
Some things are a mystery, but some things are abundantly clear. Irrefutable evidence of doping violations is difficult to pin down, but elite athletes have been seeking an edge—by almost any means—forever. And it has only been during the current century, when the high-profile sports of baseball and football finally began to take serious anti-doping measures, that real penalties—and therefore a stigma—were attached to juicing.
Long before Major League Baseball or the NFL paid attention to this stuff, the U.S. Olympic Committee hired its first drug-control chief, Dr. Robert Voy, recognizing in the early 1980s a need for aggressive testing. The first major drug busts in sports were at the Pan American Games of 1983, in Caracas, and 1987, in Indianapolis, and it was then that Voy said significant anti-doping progress only would commence “if the NFL would go back to fielding 235-pound linemen, instead of 285-pounders; if the NFL would face the steroid problem; if Division I college football would wipe out steroid use, which they could do for the same money they spend on tape.”
Now, 30 years later, New York Times columnist Michael Powell has made the same point in his sober reaction to the Al Jazeera undercover documentary naming Manning (among others)—that the “shock would be to discover that more than a few men in this morally compromised sport are completely clean. In the last two decades, the weight of NFL linemen has jumped by 50, 60, 70 pounds, and men the size of linebackers play wide receiver.”
Powell quoted University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke’s observation that “football and doping kind of go hand-in-hand.”
This is not the kind of information the typical sports fan—or the typical sports journalist—much cares to think about, and that has enabled sports authorities to mostly look the other way, especially since theirs is an endeavor in which “doing anything to win” is a maxim.
These days, at least, we have tentatively accepted that the first step in resolving the doping issue is to acknowledge the extent of the problem. So that stars fingered by Al Jazeera, as in the the BALCO and Biogenesis scandals, are inclined toward passionate repudiation—instead of instructive parables about scouring pads and clean pots.