It was just before 7:00 AM on an autumn morning in 1978 when 18-year-old Renate Neufeld was awakened by the Secret Police. Her dormitory, which was off-limits even to her parents when they visited, was invaded by Stasi officers, who – in their mechanical compliance to indiscernible demands – took the young sprinter away for questioning.
As a relative newcomer to the TSC Berlin Sports Club, Neufeld was unique. Like her classmates, she grew up in East Germany, but unlike the rest of the sequestered school, her daily routine through adolescence hadn’t been meted out by the Socialist Unity Party. Most of the students there were hand-selected at the age of twelve to become future representatives of East Germany at the Olympic Games. Since being chosen, they trained constantly to reach this goal. From physical exercises to nutrition, regimen and unconditional obedience was a way of life.
Neufeld, a champion hurdler in her teens, didn’t join the school until after she turned 17-years-old. Immediately, her trainer set her up on a sophisticated program that would make up for lost time and reap increased ability from her surprising and untamed talent. Included in this plan was a supplemental diet of grey pills and green powder that he referred to as vitamins. Once she began consuming these “vitamins,” her legs suffered frequent cramps, her voice deepened, facial hair grew on the top of her lip and she ceased menstruating.
Knowing that something was wrong with the new aspects of her training, Neufeld refused to take the pills and powder that were pushed on her. As a result, she was sent to a female doctor on staff at the academy who attempted to reassure her that the physical alterations she experienced had nothing to do with the substances she took. The doctor further suggested that she might be in need of psychiatric help for her paranoia.
Undeterred, Neufeld brazenly returned the supplements to her trainer, keeping a few pills and a trace amount of powder. Following this latest act of defiance, the sports club arranged for her to be visited by party members where she was offered membership in the Communist Party. She declined, and this was followed by the early morning visit from the Stasi in October.
The officers – practiced in intimidation tactics – questioned her on refusing to join the party, asked her why she wouldn’t take the recommended vitamins, and informed her that they knew about her Bulgarian boyfriend – intimating that she was under surveillance. The tone and content of the meeting, combined with a scheduled follow-up appointment were enough to cause her and her boyfriend to flee.
Less than two months later, she escaped to Poland. A year after that, Neufeld was in West Germany where she turned over the substances she had kept. The grey pills and green powder were analyzed, and found to be anabolic steroids.
On January 11, 1979, Neufeld’s self-imposed exile was reported by John Vinocur in the New York Times. Months before that, the headlines of several of Western Europe’s top newspapers read “East German sprinter forced to take drugs.” To the public – in the midst of a Cold War frenzy – this was an introduction to performance enhancing drugs, something the enemy coerced innocent young women toward. It was an evil, more macabre retelling of Frankenstein, wherein the monster actually competed on the world stage against them.
From 1976 to 1979, 15 East German athletes defected. The biography of each defector became increasingly horrific. There were stories of 14-year-old skiers who received injections of unknown substances in their knees to keep them from breaking down. There were chronicles of female gymnasts who had to wear corsets from the age of 18 to keep their core together after damage to their spine and ligaments. Perhaps most famously, there was the legend – later confirmed – of the East German weightlifter whose intake of anabolic steroids was so great as to contribute to confusion over an already unsure gender identity. Heidi Krieger later became Andreas Krieger.
The evidence of mistreatment was a propaganda godsend for the West. Performance enhancing substances were being systematically abused by their Cold War enemy, contributing to a rivalry that had constantly extended beyond the political realm and into the world of sports. Each leaked bit of monster-making salaciousness strengthened the association between performance-enhancers and evil-doing. As an object of ideological opposition, steroids became yet another way in which the Eastern Bloc was fighting dirty.
On August 5, 2013, Major League Baseball announced 50-game suspensions for a dozen players after pursuing and obtaining evidence of banned substance use. These punishments were in addition to the longer suspensions given to Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun (65 games) and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez (211 games). Of the 14 players, only Rodriguez is appealing the disciplinary action.
Athletes, journalists and fans all expressed varying degrees of vitriol over players resorting to chemical convenience as a means of improvement. However, it was Braun and Rodriguez who received the brunt of public disparagement.
When Braun tested positive two years ago, he appealed based on the incorrect handling of the positive sample he provided. After winning his appeal, he game a very convincing press conference in which he adamantly denied any wrongdoing. Then, when pressed by Major League Baseball following the procurement of evidence from Anthony Bosch and former employees of the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic with an even lengthier suspension, Braun meekly accepted his fate, divulging the vaguest of confessions as part of what seemed like a plea bargain.
As for Rodriguez, his incredible skills on the field have always been inversely proportionate to his lackluster faculty for understanding public relations. He is frequently mocked, repeatedly used as a punchline and often held in contempt – and that’s just by Yankees fans. Casual viewers of the game treat the superstar – who not that long ago was considered a candidate to hit more home runs than Barry Bonds – as a target for scorn, propagating myths of shortcomings in clutch situations and bemoaning his lack of intangibles when not outright booing his at-bats. The possibility of his cheating the joint drug agreement was almost greeted joyously in the weeks leading up to his suspension by those eager for more reason to despise the player.
While the particular circumstances surrounding the individual players are factors in the public outrage, these components only serve to amplify our predilection toward condemning the use of PEDs as wrong. My question is why. Why does this sense of outrage permeate? Why do we feel the way we do about performance enhancing drug users?
Asking “why” to generally accepted principles is typically done in a facetious manner, but this question isn’t being asked with an irreverent tone. There’s genuine validity behind an examination of why we get so outraged over PED use.
A Health Issue
Obviously, there’s concern for an athlete’s health. We’ve seen examples of unchecked abuse in the past, and it’s not pretty: the L.A. Raiders of the early eighties, the aforementioned East German Olympians and even the recent slew of chemically dependent NHL enforcers whose drug-fueled depression is believed to have pushed them toward suicide and overdoses.
However, classifying PEDs solely as a health concern fails to recognize the nuance that surrounds the issue. The very same substances that we casually associate with worst case scenarios are still prescribed by doctors to help patients. Steroids and human growth hormone have the potential to do good. Consider beloved New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, still pitching at the age of 41. On separate occasions in 2002 and 2004, Pettitte received multiple HGH injections as a means of recovering from an elbow injury faster.
Similarly, 39-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon returned to baseball in 2011, after a two-year absence during which the right-hander underwent an experimental medical procedure involving stem cells. When word leaked that the procedure is usually coupled with controlled doses of HGH, Colon’s revitalization came under fire. A year later, the pitcher tested positive for synthetic testosterone and was banned for 50 games. His name was also found in the Biogenesis records.
In soccer, Lionel Messi’s well-documented struggles as a child with Growth Hormone Disorder led to HGH treatments that assisted his physical development, and allowed him to become a superstar in his field. It’s this type of therapeutic use that we often overlook when discussing banned substances with the performance-enhancing drug label.
Part of the problem is the continued association between PEDs and the Goldman dilemma. From 1982 to 1995, elite athletes were asked by Dr. Robert Goldman whether or not they would take a drug that could guarantee success in sports, but also cause them to die after five years. For more than a decade the question was consistently answered affirmatively by half of the athletes.
We sometimes forget that this is a mock scenario. Athletes aren’t always abusing their body with the use of a banned substance that’s seemingly arbitrarily assumed to be performance-enhancing. Instead, we can find several examples of bodies that would otherwise be incapable of competing without the use of medical advancements that are legally available to non-athletes when prescribed by a doctor. In this case the substances banned as health risks are being used to maintain the very thing that they’re supposed to be diminishing.
Further negating the defense that our strong feelings over PEDs are berthed out of concern for the health of athletes is the actual damage caused by substances that wouldn’t be considered for prohibition or outrage. In 2012, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton joined fellow baseball players Johnny Damon and Brian McCann in being diagnosed with ocular keratitis, a drying of the cornea caused by too much caffeine, the result of drinking one too many energy drinks, which contain nothing but legal substances according to MLB.
The suspected reason for Hamilton’s elevated consumption of caffeine was to compensate for his quitting smokeless tobacco, another dangerous substance that baseball players are allowed to use. Oddly enough, no physician interested in avoiding lawsuits for malpractice has ever been known to prescribe chewing tobacco as a means of solving any medical complication.
There are several elements of sports – the repeated motions, the physical contact, the celebration of self-sacrifice for the sake of the team – that stand to have a far worse impact on an individual’s health than the controlled use of many of the substances that are banned by most sporting competitions.
Is anyone prepared to suggest that attention given to concussions equal PEDs, and yet which represents a greater threat to the health of athletes?
An Ethical Issue
People often classify PED use as an ethical issue. That’s certainly accurate. Whether or not it may seem arbitrary, the rules of most games prohibit the use of substances believed to offer competitors an advantage. As soon as an athlete takes a drug that’s banned by his or her sport, they’re breaking the rules. That’s impossible to argue against.
What’s equally difficult to argue against is that the use of these substances are taken far more seriously than other forms of cheating, despite the fact that these other forms have a far more tangible benefit for the cheater. A hockey player who uses an illegal curve on his stick could face a two-minute minor penalty if an opponent wishes to challenge the stick’s structure. A player in the NHL who tests positive for a banned substance faces a 20-game suspension. His second offense earns him 60 games away from the rink. The third time he tests positive, the player sits out two seasons.
In our minds, drug use seems like a serious infraction of the rules, while illegally adjusting equipment is a minor occurrence. We condemn the one cheater, and pass off the other with a platitude that almost admires their deed: If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’.
Yet, we can actually measure what happens when you use an illegal hockey stick, or a pitcher uses a foreign substance on a baseball. We see the result of a distance runner who doesn’t maintain his line as a competitor attempts to pass, and we can watch the effect of a dirty play in football causing an injured player to leave the pitch.
The consequences of these actions pale in comparison to PEDs, despite the fact that for the majority of sports, we have a difficult time understanding just how performance is enhanced. In baseball, there are multiple studies that reveal – admittedly, to varying degrees – no effect at all from the use of banned substances.
Again, we’re left asking why. To this point, we’ve looked at the issue in terms of ethics, but there’s an obvious relationship between the ethics prescribed by sporting bodies and the personal morals of fans. How else do we explain our personal ranking of devious behavior almost always championing PED use as the worst thing an athlete can do.
Why is there so much outrage attached to Ryan Braun, who probably lied to us about his cheating, but very little acrimony remaining for Delmon Young, who attacked a man on the street without provocation while directing racist slurs at the target of his physical violence? What about the athletes in all sports who commit actual crimes that affect actual people? What if we compare a hypothetical response to Ryan Braun getting arrested for drunk driving to our actual response to Ryan Braun getting caught using a banned substance?
For the majority of us, the outcome of that comparison is going to be one that fails to put the use of banned substance in its proper context.
Consider the gruesome shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp by Olympian Oscar Pistorius in February. The day after the details of the case against the runner began to emerge, rumors that steroids were found at the crime scene began to draw attention away from the allegations that he murdered his girlfriend. Attached to these rumors was the assumption that some sort of ‘roid rage was the likely culprit for the premature end of a woman’s life. It wasn’t an issue of domestic violence, gun control or mistaken identity – steroids made him do it.
A Competitiveness Issue
While amateur sleuths assuming the motives to murder is obviously ridiculous, there’s another argument to be made that leans on our sense of right and wrong. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that it’s the responsibility of the governing bodies of sport to ensure an even playing field for all competitors. The use of PEDs contravenes this principle.
Part of the appeal of sport is found in competition being on relatively equal terms. This is why we have weight classes in combat sports and qualification times for Olympic events and differing levels of leagues within professional sports. Fair competitions offer more mystery, more narrative. While anything can happen in any sport, the vast majority of outcomes between the strong and the weak favor the strong.
The thinking is that PED use threatens the equilibrium that we enjoy from sports. The level playing field is tilted in favor of the one breaking the rules of the game.
Again, that’s not wrong. There’s no reasonable argument to be mounted against this, but there’s an obvious arbitrariness with which we assign outrage to the advantage cheating brings. How else do we reconcile public outrage over PED use to the complete lack of interest in other advantages given to competitors.
In our examination of banned substance use from a health perspective, we find that it shares more in common with nutrition and medicine than a magical Gummi Bear elixir that gives mortals the ability to bounce here and there and everywhere. Yet, no one bats an eye over the nutritional advantage achieved through Hunter Pence’s paleolithic diet – despite scientific refutation of the evolutionary claims it makes – or the socioeconomic advantage wealthy future athletes maintain in terms of development techniques and the high-priced coaching at their disposal.
Are these not unfair advantages offered to some, but not all? Any argument dependent on making drug use in sports about an inequitable competitive advantage has to eventually go back to it being a health risk or against the rules. Both of these topics were broached in the previous section, and so once again, we’re left asking the exact same question: “why.” Why is PED use against the rules, and why is it vilified to the point that it is?
Outside of so-called amateur athletics – and maybe cycling – the public’s contextless attitude toward performance-enhancers is most visible in baseball. Perhaps this hints at a correlation between a sport’s public display of PED policing and the disregard that fans feel for those caught cheating.
It’s a bit reminiscent of the 2003 SARS “outbreak” in Toronto. The World Health Organization issued a travel advisory against the city after local health agencies diagnosed and documented several cases of the virus. Meanwhile, no such advisories took place against other municipalities in the United States despite several cities experiencing massive increases in pneumonia and respiratory infection cases.
When a sport decides to tackle the use of PEDs, they have to admit that PED use exists. However, baseball’s relatively sudden and dogged pursuit of performance enhancing drug users has always seemed less than genuine. That’s likely due to the success that the sport enjoyed when steroids, human growth hormones and other substances that are now banned were at their most prominent.
After a labor dispute ended the 1994 season prematurely, and the continuing work stoppage threatened to do away with the 1995 season entirely, baseball needed something to draw fans back to the sport beyond merely allowing players to flip baseballs to kids in the stands whenever they wished.
The league’s prayers to the sports gods were seemingly answered by a sudden increase in power hitting. More runs were scored. More extra base hits were clobbered. And the home run hitters became the heroes of the game, the saviors of baseball.
Major League Baseball teams took a don’t ask, don’t tell approach to players who maybe-might-could-possibly-be using questionable substances to increase their strength; the Commissioner’s Office was too wrapped up in its sport’s revival to investigate anything; and the media was happy to spin heroic narratives around the shattering of what had previously been considered unbreakable records.
It’s within the world of baseball beat writers that we find the story of Steve Wilstein, the Associated Press reporter who caught eyerolls from his colleagues after writing about the Androstenedione he saw in Mark McGwire’s locker in 1998. Canadian sports writer Stephen Brunt – who followed the St. Louis Cardinal’s first baseman during his pursuit of Roger Maris’s 61 home runs in a single season record – recalled the moment when Wilstein first asked McGwire about the substance, comparing the response from the other reporters to someone releasing a fart in the room.
Such speculation of cheating was more common to Olympic athletes, not baseball players. However, Wilstein’s annoying queries were more reflective of public opinion than anyone involved in the heyday of baseball’s drug fuelled power could have imagined.
Drugs in sports had been a consistent nerve striker since its use was first associated with the Eastern Bloc countries finding success at international sporting competitions. What the general public lacked in knowledge of performance enhancers was more than made up for by their certainty of its use being morally reprehensible and harmful to one’s health. Users were cheats and freaks, and the cheats and freaks were most commonly perceived to be from regions in which our political differences had piqued to the point of quiet conflict.
This is the result of Cold War hysteria, and its lingering remnants continuing to inform our opinions on performance enhancing drugs.
While the history of artificial performance enhancers in sports dates back to ancient times when Germanic warriors would drug themselves into a violent fervor prior to competitions of strength, it was Americans who first used anabolic steroids for international competitions.
After experiments with weightlifters using testosterone during the mid-1950s induced side-effects deemed too harmful, Dr. John Ziegler, an American trainer, began using methandrostenolone with the athletes who sought his treatment. The results were astonishing. Weight gains, increased strength and few side effects made the oral steroid a popular choice, and within a decade, its use had spread to other sports, both amateur and professional.
Ten years after that, anabolic steroid consumption was so prevalent that researchers in the United States had a difficult time finding a control group large enough to compare to the athletes using steroids. Nonetheless, it was the East Germans and their Eastern Bloc comrades who were vilified as a form of propaganda that was consistent with the era.
Level-headed comparisons are quick to emphasize that East Germany’s systematic use of dangerous performance enhancers was a policy promoted by the government of the nation, and often done in an involuntary manner. Western nations weren’t so corruptible as to be lured into force feeding athletes the grey pills and green powders that Renate Neufeld would smuggle out of her country in 1978 as a defector.
Until recently, this was an important distinction to make. However, two days before Major League Baseball brought the hammer down on the players it collected evidence against, excerpts of a report from Berlin’s Humboldt University were released to the press suggesting that West German officials conducted research into performance enhancing drugs – including anabolic steroids – that consisted of experiments on young athletes considered to be minors.
The results of these tests informed a performance-enhancing drug program that became standardized in the early 1970s, a short time after Neufeld’s defection and her turning over the smuggled substances to West German officials. It seems that reaping the benefits of its systematic use has a history of coinciding with the condemnation of PEDs. The only thing more easily associated with steroids than increased muscle mass is hypocrisy.
A year after McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced to break Maris’s record, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) combated the reputation of its athletes as drug cheats by forming the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Still, Major League Baseball did nothing to fight the use of PEDs in its own sport because to do so would be to admit that PEDs were being used.
In fact, the only response from sports groups in the United States to WADA was to oppose it ahead of its formation in 1999, claiming that any governing body looking into drugs in sports should be independent from the IOC. Considering that WADA was very much dependent on a $25-million allocation from the IOC to cover startup costs, such an organization’s existence without the IOC’s support would be unfeasible.
Less than four years later, Dr. Wade Exum, the former director of drug control administration for the United States Olympic Committee, leaked 30,000 pages of documents to Sports Illustrated revealing a more disturbing motivation for America’s reticence to accept WADA. There had been more than 100 covered up positive drug tests for U.S athletes from 1988 to 2000, and at least 19 Olympic medals won by competitors who should have been prevented from participating.
Perhaps the most famous of the athletes to benefit from the widespread cover up was 1988 Olympic 100 metres champion Carl Lewis, whose title was only won after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified for his own positive test. Lewis confirmed that he had failed three drug tests during qualification for the Barcelona Olympics, and claimed to be one of hundreds of American athletes benefitting from a dishonest system.
While rumors and common sense certainly combined to persuade some American sports fans that athletes from their nation were not cleaner than athletes from any other country, these confessions were still disillusioning to a great many. The practice that our psyches had unfairly associated solely with the enemy was suddenly the practice of our own nation as well.
In response to this loss of innocence, Major League Baseball moved rapidly to condemn the practice to which it had turned a blind eye just long enough to enjoy a revival. In 2003, the very same year of the USOC revelations, Major League Baseball implemented random drug tests for the first time, with exemptions for players on the 40-man roster. A year later, mandatory random testing was introduced.
Then, as the story of BALCO – the California laboratory that created an unidentifiable steroid – began to unfold, and several players were invited to testify before Congress, Commissioner Bud Selig delegated former senator George Mitchell to investigate the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone in baseball. As a result of the inquiry and subsequent analysis – which Selig referred to as “a call to action” – suspensions for positive tests became more severe, and baseball went from blatantly ignoring a potential problem to prosecuting any player involved in PED use. What was once the unofficial savior of the sport transformed into its verified villain in less than five years.
In the most recent example of MLB’s undeterred pursuit of PED users, which included the use of money and threats to procure evidence against its own players, we find the avalanche into which the single snowball culminated. Sports leagues depend on public perception more than anything else because its business models depend on extracting a comparatively little amount of money from a great many people.
There’s nothing altruistic about banning PEDs. It’s not done out of concern for an athlete’s health, as a moral or ethical obligation, nor to protect the integrity of the competition. It’s catering to public perception.
This perception has largely been informed, not by data or fact, but by the fears and hysteria of an era in history in which propaganda and hypocrisy ruled. Long after the Cold War ended, this perception is now reinforced by groups dependent on public interest for their livelihood. If steroids are bad to the people, then PEDs are bad to the leagues, and any association between leagues and PEDs must be put to an end. As a result, individual athletes are vilified, while the committees and leagues who benefit from the optimum performances of athletes in their charge remain blameless through their sacrifice.
It’s easy to point to the arbitrary way in which we deal with drugs in sports without offering any solutions to how they should be handled. No one wants to see physical harm come to athletes. No one wants to see athletes breaking the rules of their game, or committing crimes while their off the field. No one wants to see certain athletes receive a drastically unfair competitive advantage. However, we continue to lack the ability to put PED use in its proper context – comparing it to other aspects of sports that cause the increased likelihood of physical harm, exhibit worse morals and ethics, and offer more of a competitive advantage.
Just as there were already enough reasons to despise the actions of East Germany – outside of their systematic use of performance enhancing drugs – there are plenty of reasons to think less of athletes. Personally, I’m looking forward to the time when sports fans can get back to hating Alex Rodriguez for spoiling their favorite team’s chances of victory, and not for accusations based on a remnant of Cold War hysteria that’s been reinforced by powers whose only concern is a sport’s profitability. You know, the good ol’ days.
Doping documents – From Research to commit fraud. By Brigitte Berendonk. Springer-Verlag. Berlin, 1991.
The Deseret News. “EU supports new anti-drug agency.” October 21, 1999.
The Glasgow Herald. “East German sprinter forced to take drugs.” December 28, 1978.
The Guardian. “Report into doping by West German athletes released.” August 5, 2013.
REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER OF BASEBALL OF AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION INTO THE ILLEGAL USE OF STEROIDS AND OTHER PERFORMANCE ENHANCING SUBSTANCES BY PLAYERS IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL. By George J. Mitchell. December 13, 2007.
The New York Times. “East German Tale of Tyranny.” January 11, 1979.
The New York Times. “They Killed Heidi.” January 26, 2004.
Sport Information Dienst. “Renate Neufeld.” December, 1978.
Sports Illustrated. “Pound blasts USOC.” April 16, 2003.