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Cheating the fans

by Matt Harvey

ASST. MANAGING EDITOR

Whenever I've heard a professional or top amateur athlete has been caught using performance-enhancing drugs, I've felt cheated.

But I'm not sure if I even feel that anymore.

Cyclists get kicked out of events routinely for using performance-enhancing drugs.

It's happened in many sports, including track and field, professional basketball and professional football. And now two baseball stars, Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, say steroid use is widespread in the major leagues. Canseco believes up to 85 percent of ballplayers "shoot the juice," while Caminiti told Sports Illustrated he's done it and alleged other major leaguers do, too.

Anymore, the question probably isn't so much who uses performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, it's more who doesn't use them.

All this very much cheapens athletics.

In baseball, for instance, long-standing records and a hallowed tradition have helped make the game popular over many years. But now major leaguers are routinely tying, breaking or threatening many records.

Are ballplayers naturally bigger, stronger and faster? Or have the results -- at least some of them -- been gained by artificial means?

Whether it's a baseball record, a track and field record or the championship of a major bicycling event, I want to know, or at least firmly believe, the person who won or set the mark did so under his or her power. Getting help from drugs shouldn't count; in my view, that's cheating.

Some governing bodies of sports try to police performance-enhancing drug abuse, with varying results. Athletes and their coaches have learned how to cheat many drug tests. So, officials create new tests and catch a few cheaters ... and then athletes and their coaches learn how to beat the new tests.

I've always thought a sports reporter ought to have some business background. Sports is, after all, very big business. Otherwise, why would athletes or coaches flaunt these rules when getting caught can often mean the end of a career?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

Baseball, which has tried to "look the other way," obviously needs to find a way to get strict with steroid abuse. Steroids can destroy athletes' bodies. And young kids who learn their favorite athlete got to a certain plateau only through artificial means may be disenchanted or, even worse, themselves apt to try steroids or some performance-enhancing drug.

Strict rules and harsh penalties won't stop all ballplayers from using steroids, just as they haven't stopped runners and shot putters from cheating.

But the governing body of any sport that suspects its players are routinely abusing drugs to get better results ought to crack down, and hard.

Baseball gave superstar Pete Rose a lifetime ban for gambling, believing his actions struck at the credibility of the game.

Abuse of performance-enhancing drugs is every bit as damaging.

We pay to see just how far athletes can push their bodies because we're curious about our own limits. Is it possible to throw a fastball, accurately, 105 mph? Can someone lower the world record in the 100-meter dash, metric mile or the marathon?

At least in professional wrestling it's clear it's just an act.

But when we no longer know whether great athletic feats are propped up by drugs, sporting events are no better than one of those very distasteful freak shows at the carnival.

Assistant Managing Editor Matt Harvey can be reached at 626-1404, or by e-mail at mharvey@exponent-telegram.com

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