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U.S.: Sports World Rocked By Steroid Scandals

As the Olympic Games in Athens approach, much of the focus in the sports world has been on the suspected use by athletes of performance-enhancing drugs banned by the International Olympic Committee, and by most professional sport leagues around the world. In the United States, professional baseball, which promotes itself as America's favorite pastime, as well as the track-and-field world, have been rocked by doping scandals.

Washington, 22 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The focus of the U.S. baseball doping case is the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), based near San Francisco.

BALCO is accused of providing illegal performance-enhancing drugs to one of the game's leading players, Barry Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants. Bonds denies it. In a recent interview, he challenged his accusers to prove he is guilty.

"They can test me every day if they choose to."

Sprinter Marion Jones, who won five gold medals at the 2000 Olympics, also is suspected of being served by BALCO. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is investigating Jones and other Olympic athletes. Jones finished only fifth in the 100 meters at a big track meet in the United States over the weekend, but came back later to win the long jump.
"It's more about a kind of drive to victory, but it ends up having the perverse consequence in that it makes our athletes less excellent and more dependant."

The USADA wants Jones to be questioned in a private hearing by what it calls an independent panel of arbitrators. Jones has responded by demanding that the panel's questions -- and her answers -- be public. That demand has been denied.

Neither Jones nor any of the other track-and-field athletes implicated in the scandal has tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, but the USADA says it can keep them from competing in Athens if it has other evidence of doping.

Such suspicions about athletes are not new. Many athletes have come under suspicion after their performances -- or their physiques -- underwent abrupt changes for the better.

But interest in the issue is becoming particularly intense, and athletic careers are being put in jeopardy. BALCO's founder and three other men have been formally charged with distributing the drugs, known as steroids, to top athletes.

Eric Cohen is editor of "The New Atlantis," a U.S. magazine that deals with technology and ethics issues. He is also the director of the Biotechnology and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a policy-research center in Washington.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Cohen recalled a time when athletes at the Olympics -- founded on the ideal of amateur athletics -- could be censured for simply having a personal trainer. Now, he noted, most have the benefit of high-technology training and advanced nutrition.

All this, according to Cohen, goes beyond proper food to include dietary supplements and other, more specialized substances. He said he believes it is time for the U.S. sports establishment to make some hard decisions about which substances to permit.

"There's a puzzling set of questions that we've seen in baseball and other sports that have to do with separating the supposedly legal sports-enhancing drugs and the illegal ones," Cohen said. "As the range of potential performance-enhancing agents expands, which it seems to be doing, the question is: 'How will we draw the line between what should be allowed and what shouldn't be? And will some of these technologies become so sophisticated that they become undetectable?"

As these substances become harder to trace, Cohen said, they will become suspected as the key to athletic success throughout the U.S. sports scene, and not just for professional athletes. He said the use of performance-enhancing drugs apparently is growing among collegiate and high-school athletes.

But Cohen said his studies of doping show that these athletes are not driven by greed for the millions of dollars to be made if they become stars. He said most younger athletes opt for steroids and similar drugs simply to survive in the modern sports arena.

"It's more about a kind of drive to victory, but it ends up having the perverse consequence in that it makes our athletes less excellent and more dependant," Cohen said. "And so the people who want to be the best end up being less great than they really might be. They're actually more like animals than athletes."

Cohen explained that using steroids may help athletes break records, but that such feats cannot be considered valid athletic accomplishments because they are not, in themselves, solely human.

He argues that most of these drugs should be outlawed because of the damage they can do to the human body. And even without such damage, they should be banned from sports because they are what he calls a "passive" route to achievement.

Despite the growing use of performance-enhancing drugs in the United States, Cohen said he sees no evidence they are more abused in the United States than in any other country, at least at the professional level.

"When you're talking about the professional levels, if you want [performance-enhancing drugs], you can get them," Cohen said. "And that's the same all over the world. People who are at the professional athletic levels -- I don't think there's much of a difference in the culture of the United States versus the culture of other places."

But Cohen said he is becoming increasingly troubled that the drugs may poison the future of U.S. sports because of what appears to be their increased use by scholastic athletes.