By: Jan Hubbard
Used properly, steroids are great. Ask Magic Johnson. They have been a big part of the regular medical cocktail he has taken to combat the human immunodeficiency virus that he discovered he had in 1991. At the time, the worst was feared. We thought he’d shrivel up and die. But more than 21 years later, he seems healthier than ever.
Steroids have other great uses – as an anti-inflamatory, in treatment of breast cancer, and even to treat eye infections.
Steroids have gotten a bad name, however, because of people like Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Jose Canseco, etc. The qualities that make steroids so effective become negative when overused and the result is, more often than not, when we think of steroids, we think of scandal.
Nowhere is the debate of steroids more heated than in cycling. The latest scrawl on the dominant sports cable channel was that 11 former teammates of Lance Armstrong have accused him of using steroids, which is nothing new. Armstrong has been battling charges for years.
If Armstrong is guilty, he is the most sophisticated PED user in human history. As he often says in his defense, he’s never tested positive for any type of drug. He says that makes him clean; his accusers and former teammates say it makes him clever.
Here’s the odd thing about steroids. As dirty as they make the sport, they have also made the sport. And I’m not talking about bodybuilding.
Consider baseball and cycling.
In 1994, major league baseball players went on strike in mid-August, cancelling the last two months of the season and the World Series.
When the labor dispute was settled in April 1995, fans were ticked. Attendance and TV ratings fell that year and they remained at levels below where they had been for three years.
Then 1998 arrived and McGuire and Sammy Sosa engaged in a home run derby that symbolized the romance of baseball. First of all, they were chasing Babe Ruth, which, of course, made their competition for the home run title nothing less than, well, Ruthian.
They also were chasing Roger Maris, whose record of 61 home runs in a season had lasted for 37 years. Babe Ruth was an icon, but Maris was notable in his own right because he was so tortured by greatness. There were numerous stories of the verbal and emotional abuse Maris was subjected to while pursuing Ruth’s record and, well, that made for even more compelling reading.
It has long been said that chicks love the long ball, but as it turned out, so did everyone else. Ratings ballooned like McGuire’s and Sosa’s bodies. McGuire hit 70 home runs; Sosa hit 66 and baseball suddenly was “in” again. Sosa never admitted steroid use but McGuire did in 2010. While neither player will ever get in the Hall of Fame, together, they boosted baseball back to its pre-strike levels of popularity.
Now consider cycling. Or as Allen Iverson might say:
For seven consecutive years, America was mesmerized by a bicycle race in Europe. Are you kidding me?
But it was Armstrong, an American and a cancer survivor who gave the sport credibility. Ratings weren’t exactly as sky-high as the Alps, but without Armstrong, they would have been closer to zero in the U.S.
And it was only with Armstrong that cycling became a front-page sport.
So if he did in fact take steroids and then do a masterful job of hiding them, it did not diminish what he did for his sport. And as it turned out, a number of other racers also admitted they were using PEDs – including some of Armstrong’s accusers – so if there was steroid abuse, it looks like everyone was doing it. Armstrong simply did it better.
I’d never argue that illegal steroid abuse is anything but bad. But it is odd how that abuse led to increasing popularity in some sports.