8/01/2012 @ 3:44PM |499 views
Recovery Drag: The Age of Cheats
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20, 2012 issue of Forbesmagazine.
One day in the 1980s my father called to share some exciting news. A shot-putter on his track team—Dad was a high school athletic director—was breaking all the state records. “This kid spent the whole winter in the gym, lifting weights. Real dedication. A testament to hard work.” Then Dad paused and added, “He has a terrible temper. The coaches don’t know what to do with him.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “Does he happen to have a lot of acne on his shoulders and back?”
“Yes,” Dad said. “How’d you know?”
“Steroids, Dad. The sudden bulk, the bad temper, the zits. Classic signs.”
Then Dad said something that betrayed the weak link in his optimistic and innocent 20th-century American attitude: “Our kids would never take steroids.”
I truly believe America is going through a bad patch that future historians may well call “The Age of Cheats.”
Major League Baseball was at a low ebb after the 1994 players’ strike. Then saviors appeared in the form of sluggers with the bodies of Greek gods: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds. The assault on the home-run records of Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Hank Aaron began. America was hooked. But some inconvenient details were overlooked. Sosa was a former 165-pound rookie who weighed 220 pounds the year he banged out 66 homers, chasing McGwire’s 70. Bonds was the best natural athlete to ever play baseball. But the fast and graceful Bonds, who used to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases with exceptional agility when he weighed 185 pounds, suddenly bulked up to 230 pounds and could barely bend over to tie his shoes. His spirit turned mean. But he hit 73 home runs one year. And America loved it.
We also fell in love with a cyclist, Lance Armstrong, who beat cancer and won the Tour de France seven times. Armstrong claimed he was clean—and still does. But how many clean athletes pay a consulting doctor who was banned from sports in his native country, Italy (and recently from all Olympic sports in all countries)? The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says Dr. Michele Ferrari advised Armstrong and teammates on how “to inject [banned oxygen-enhancer] EPO intravenously in order to avoid the drug showing up in a urine drug test.” The way one cheats in endurance sports is to boost the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Drugs like EPO will do that, as will blood transfusions. Armstrong may have some or all of his Tour de France titles stripped.
Cycling and Olympic sports are often cited as the dirtiest sports, but that’s only because professional team sports, abetted by their players’ unions, turn a blind eye. Does anyone seriously believe that NFL players are cleaner than, say, Olympic swimmers? To believe that is to believe that the arc of human evolution suddenly jumped the curve in the 1980s, producing a race of 300-pound men able to leap tall buildings and run the 40-yard dash like a bullet.
Cheating in sports is but a single facet of the cheating that’s rampant today in everything from education to finance to government. The financial meltdown of 2008 was a bonfire of bad behavior on all sides. Fannie Mae is built on the lie that every American is capable of paying a mortgage. Mortgage lenders steered victims into loans they could never pay. But the victims were not all innocent. Many lied on loan applications, claiming incomes they never had.
President Obama wrote a biography based on fabrications, which he admitted to this year. The oddest of those lies concern the “girlfriend” he now says was a “compression” of real people. Even small lies reveal character.
A new and growing form of cheating is taking place in our high schools. During tests, particularly SATs, kids are popping speed and prescription drugs meant to treat attention-deficit disorder. Anything for an edge.
Make no mistake, our Age of Cheats is a sign of rot. The U.S. government fudges its numbers (by way of the monetary printing press). Our politicians call reduced growth rates “cuts in spending.” Our biggest banks take obscene risks and cry poor when they don’t work out. But we’ve risen above moral rot before. The U.S. has transcended slavery and civil war, as well as periods of rampant corruption and paralyzing resentment.
Let’s hope the Age of Cheats is drawing to a close, because a full recovery won’t be possible until it’s over.