These days, we hear so much about athletes and drugs that it all becomes somewhat of a blur. What with Barry Bonds ingesting whatever clear liquid his trainer gives him, and with Tyler Hamilton kicked out of cycling but keeping his medal, it’s almost impossible to keep things straight. Does “everybody” use some kind of performance-enhancing drug? If so, does it really matter?
I think it does matter, but it depends on the sport. For some sports, I can’t manage to get riled up at all, but for others, I’m really quite livid about it. With that in mind, and apologies to the Department of Homeland Security, I’ve come up with a handy chart that readers may find helpful when assessing the seemingly endless stream of reports on drugs in sports.
RED — Severe. Strikes at the sanctity of competition and sportsmanship itself. The only sports that merit such a high rating are baseball and track and field. Track and field is supposed to measure the limits of human athleticism. If athletes are competing drugged, it becomes a robot competition, not a sporting event. Similarly, baseball is essentially an individual sport. The hallowed records of home runs in a season, best batting average, and lowest ERA are almost as important as a team’s winning record.
ORANGE — High. Still merits serious attention. This is for sports that are still essentially individual sports, just ones we don’t care about quite as much: things like swimming and weightlifting. Few people care about these sports more than once every four years. In track and field, a world record at, say, the world championships still makes headlines, but in swimming, no one notices unless it’s at the Olympics.
YELLOW — Elevated. This is for important sports where we’re not sure how much drugs matter, or lesser sports where they might matter more, but we care correspondingly less. Basketball, cycling, and golf fall into this category. Until we find a tall drug, drugs aren’t going to matter so much in basketball. However, we do have a bit of a suspicion about pumped up athletes like Shaquille O’Neal. If Shaq’s dominance comes from drugs rather than hard work or natural ability, it’s just not as impressive. But as a team sport, the individual’s role doesn’t seem as important as it does in, say, baseball or track. Cycling is more obviously an individual sport, but we give these guys a bit of a break because what they do is just so demanding. Golf is clearly an individual sport, but skill is such a critical component (as opposed to strength) that it’s unclear how much of an advantage players would get from using drugs.
BLUE — Guarded. This is for team sports where the role of the individual is limited, or for individual sports where the role of drugs and/or our level of caring is negligible. This includes football, soccer, ice skating, and tennis. We suspect that practically every lineman in football uses some sort of drug to increase his strength, but we find it hard to care. It’s a team sport, and the role of the individual is very limited. Even the “great” running backs primarily attribute their records to running behind great offensive lines, or playing on teams where there simply was no passing threat. The role of the individual is perhaps greater in soccer, but we care correspondingly less. We suppose drugs might help the performance of an ice skater or a tennis player, but we care hardly a whit about it.
GREEN — Low. Auto racing, professional wrestling, hockey. News of contraband drug use in these “sports” would be more of a diversion or amusement than anything else.