Testing Your Mettle the recent failed drug tests of Tour de France champ Floyd Landis and ‘fastest human’ Justin Gatlin are capturing the public’s consciousness at the same time that people are starting to think that testing isn’t the answer. It’s not the realization that testing can be flawed, that new drugs are undetectable by current techniques, or that the war on drugs has failed in sports. It’s that people don’t care.
At least, they don’t care until it’s their guy.
Floyd Landis is a great story. Competing in the shadow of Lance Armstrong, Landis pedaled his way past the competition on a necrotic hip to win the grueling race. Another American flag crossing the Champs Elyssee would give Landis millions in endorsement opportunities. Add in an Opie-style grin and a Mennonite background and you have a star. Until the test came in. The media and the public turned on a dime, condemning Landis before the ‘B’ sample could be tested, before the appeals process could be started, and even before Landis could give a credible explanation. Landis’ use of cortisone and heavy drinking give some pause even to testers. There’s a heavy burden on any athlete after a positive test, but Landis makes the best case I’ve heard.
In America, Justin Gatlin toured schools in Indianapolis, lecturing students about staying drug free. He gave a rote, cloying speech that said everything but “eat your spinach.” All the while, Gatlin knew he had tested positive for the use of steroids. It was his third offense, one that will lead to a lifetime ban from the sport. He had the good sense and timing to stay clean through the 2004 Olympics, giving himself a Gold Medal along with the injections. Gatlin is just the latest of track coach Trevor Graham’s charges to test positive. It’s no surprise, given that Graham was being supplied by Victor Conte of BALCO. Graham thanked Conte by turning him in, handing over a vial of THG, testifying against him in court, and supplying his athletes with the products of another lab.
Jason Grimsley is a name that only his mother and the hardest of the hardcore baseball fans would know. He’ll go down in history as the first non-analytic positive in baseball, opening up a dangerous precedent that has surprisingly not been challenged. One of the names in his confession was his trainer, Chris Mihlfeld. Mihlfeld continues to deny that his name is in the document, but the evidence is pretty strong. Honestly, no one cares if Jason Grimsley took HGH, steroids, or injected himself with the insides of a chocolate bunny. They do care that there’s an open connection to one star athlete, Albert Pujols. There’s no evidence – none – that Albert Pujols has used steroids, but the same innuendo and techniques used against Barry Bonds are in play here. Pujols bulked up in the minor leagues. Pujols has a receding hairline. Pujols is just too good.
Everyone likes testing until they don’t get the result they want. Catch a star and everyone’s doing it. Catch a nobody and the testing isn’t strong enough. Catch one of your guys and everything changes. Everyone wants to believe their own guy. Witness the reaction of fans to Jason Giambi. After a vague apology, all was well with Yankees fans. Honestly, the apology didn’t matter. If healthy and slugging, Giambi would be alright by Yanks fans regardless. When he was injured and not swinging well, he had to be juicing. Yankees haters – and there are plenty – won’t be satisfied either. Playing bad? The juice. Playing well? Back on the juice. Playing? Hater Nation calls the local talk radio and asks why the ‘cheaters’ aren’t in jail.
Baseball fans always point to power spikes, claiming that no one can add that much muscle in an off-season and certainly can’t change their game. Forget the effects of luck or the multivariate components that make up any sport’s skillset. Brady Anderson is the poster child for this, spiking from 16 homers in 1995 to 50 in 1996. Sure, Anderson’s increase is tough to explain, but it’s hardly unheard of. According to Peter Keating’s new book “Dingers!”, eleven players have had increases of at least 25 home runs year over year.
I always point to lucky socks and chicken when people ask me about power spikes. Players in any sport will often have lucky socks or something just as stupidly superstitious. Remove the lucky socks and they’ll turn into basket cases. Wade Boggs, the HOF hitter, ate chicken every day before a game. That’s a lot of chicken, but points to the power of routine in sports. It worked, they say, and you don’t mess with a streak. If a player will stick with one meal for a career or count on lucky socks, why would someone like Brady Anderson stop taking steroids? If it got him 50 homers and a big contract, why stop? No player ever made a conscious decision to get worse.
Then again, it might just be simpler to point to number two on the power spike list. In 1927, a player saw a spike of 31 homers year over year. It was a great year for his team and for any hitter around baseball, but no one ever had such a spike for almost 70 years. That player must have done something, right? As we try to look back at athletes in any sport that haven’t tested positive, that used steroids before a testing program was in place, or that just have that air of decadence about them, think about Lou Gehrig. This revered player had a power spike that for most of the century was second to none.
Maybe we should try to test Lou.