The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Mark McGwire and Performance Enhancing Drugs

Jan 13th, 2010
4:21 pm PDT
Mark McGwire admits to using steroids

Within the past 48 hours Mark McGwire has confessed to what we’ve all suspected for years – that he indeed was using steroids during the best part of his career – the home run smashing, record breaking years of his career. This continues the pattern of high profile, “superior” athletes confessing after years of denial that they indeed used performance enhancers during their reign of superiority.

Clearly at this point there is some sort of correlation between the performance of many of the world’s most elite or superior athletes and the use of drugs in enhancing their performance. And while I in no way intend to paint all “super” athletes with the broad brush of drug use, as the role call of these athletes grows larger, so does the percentage of those that have used.

For me, however, McGwire’s confession is less important as his explanation. Because as he asked us to forgive him, he stated that his drug use did NOT help him with his achievements. It is THAT that I would like to discuss today.

McGwire says that he was born to hit home runs. That he has hit home runs his whole life. And that his steroid use was done to keep him healthy – or more specifically to keep him from being constantly injured. He did not do so, he explained, to get larger muscles.

Before I get to McGwire’s explanation let’s address the term Performance Enhancing Drugs. I used that term in the title and not the word “steroids” or “drugs” for a reason – to define just why these drugs/substances are banned. They are banned, ostensibly, because they provide unnatural assistance to the user! Hence we call them performance ENHANCERS.

In the case of McGwire, his body kept breaking down on him. It was not strong enough on its own to sustain the workload that his sport demanded! He needed “something else” to enable his body to be strong enough to keep from breaking down and staying injured. His body was incapable of doing so on its own – that is clear both by his history of injuries and his own confession. Keeping his body from breaking down, is what enabled him to train harder, get stronger, and perform as he did. Therefore his steroid use “enhanced” his performance!

And that is where I really want to start this conversation. Because I’ve heard so many people say that “drugs” didn’t run down the track, or throw the baseball, or jump over the bar, or any number of physical actions. It’s always pointed out how the athlete in question had always been good at what he or she did/does. That they were always a “star”. Always stronger, faster, quicker, etc. And I will not dispute that in any case that we have seen.

It only stands to reason that these athletes would have “always” been good at what they do/did – that’s how they got to be “professionals” in the first place. The use of statements decrying how good an athlete has always been, as proof that they didn’t need “drugs” is a Red Herring that draws away from the real issue.

The real issue isn’t that the drugs are used to bring them to a professional level. The issue is that drugs are used to take them to the NEXT level. To make them Elite. To take an athlete to the “superior”, “untouchable” level in his or her craft. To take someone that was already among the best of the best and make them better – to create that final level of separation!

So to paraphrase an old commercial, PED use isn’t designed to make you fast, strong, quick or big, PED use is designed to make you your fast, faster; your strong, stronger! Something that we never talk about in this, or any other sport. Which is why I am such a proponent of out of season testing. Sure there are drugs that can be used to aide on the day of a competition – to enhance your senses or make breathing easier. But where PEDs are most effective is in PREPARATION. Which is why there are so few drug busts during competition – the main use was done weeks, even months, before!

McGwire was absolutely correct – steroids didn’t swing his bat, nor were they a part of his hand eye coordination. But they did keep his body from breaking down. They made him strong enough to complete all the work he needed to put in TO swing his bat better and work on that hand eye coordination! Without the drugs he couldn’t have put in the workload necessary to perfect those things – and THAT is why they enhanced his performance!

It’s no different for track athletes. Improving strength; increasing the ability to carry more oxygen within the system; enhancing the senses, these things can aid both during competition AND training. The more oxygen you can carry the longer you can work out. The longer you work out you can increase your strength, endurance, and sharpen your skills. If you can get stronger you can apply more force to the track if you’re sprinting or jumping, or to an implement if you are a thrower.

After all that is why athletes train- to get better. And anything that can be done to make training a more productive endeavor will aid one’s performance! Too often, both for fans and those conducting tests, the focus is on the actual competition itself – and that was McGwire’s focus in his confession. But there is much that must be done BEFORE you compete. You don’t get good, or great on the day of competition. You become great during preparation. Competition is the test of how good or great you have become – the time when the training pays off.

And that is where the proof lies – in the competition. Because so far, every athlete that has had to come “clean” has had that “spike” in production in their given sport. From McGwire’s spike in home runs, to Kelli White’s World Championship runs to Tim Montgomery and Ben Johnson’s WR setting. All, and others, went from being world class to top of the class during their period of PED usage. Looking at their performances prior to and their performances during, its hard to deny that the PED’s enhanced their performances.

So in the process of training to become a great athlete, if you must use something to “assist” you to achieve your desired results outside of what you came to this earth with, THAT is an enhancement. That is cheating based on the rules of sport – because it provides an unfair advantage over those athletes that train and compete without unnatural, chemically enhanced assistance. So McGwire using drugs to keep from being injured WAS cheating. He was dirty, based on the rules of sport. Next I will be talking about clean vs dirty.

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