A month ago, Mark McGwire was hauled before a congressional hearing and lambasted as a cheater for using a legal, performance-enhancing steroid precursor when he broke baseball’s single-season home run record.
A week ago, Tiger Woods was celebrated for winning golf’s biggest tournament, the Masters, with the help of superior vision he acquired through laser surgery.
What’s the difference?
At the steroid hearing on March 17, numerous members of the House Committee on Government Reform, led by Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., denounced performance-enhancing drugs. They offered three arguments: The drugs are illegal, they’re harmful, and they’re cheating. But illegality doesn’t explain why a drug should be illegal, and the steroid precursor McGwire took, andro, was legal at the time. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse conceded at the hearing that steroid precursors weren’t banned until last year, that steroids “do, in fact, enhance certain types of physical performance,” that some are “prescribed to treat body wasting in patients with AIDS and other diseases that result in loss of lean muscle mass,” and that “not all anabolic steroid abusers experience the same deleterious outcomes.”
Don’t get me wrong. If you buy a steroid off the street or the Internet today just to bulk up, you’re taking a stupid risk. But much of that risk comes from your ignorance and the dubious grade of steroid you’re getting. A star player with access to the best stuff and the best medical supervision isn’t taking the same degree of risk. Furthermore, steroids are a crude, early phase of enhancement technology. Chemists are trying every day to refine compounds and doses that might help pro athletes without bad side effects.
Already the medical objection to doping has holes. At the hearing, lawmakers displayed a supposedly damning list of “Performance Enhancing Substances Not Covered by Baseball’s New Testing Program.” The first item on the list was human growth hormone. But the Food and Drug Administration has approved human growth hormone for use in short, healthy children based on studies showing its safety and efficacy. The National Institutes of Health says it’s “generally considered to be safe, with rare side effects” in children, and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists has found the same pattern in adults.