The Year of Drugs

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Yes, 2006 was the year of Tiger. The year of Roger Federer. And Maria Sharapova. And Torino. Yet it was also the year we the great American sports fans lost our innocence when it comes to performance enhancing drugs. We simply don't believe in Santa Claus any more.

When Ben Johnson tested positive for Winstrol back at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, and his100-meter gold medal was taken from him and awarded to Carl Lewis, the news dominated in bold headlines all around the world. It was a shocking blow to both the Olympic mystique and sports in general. The only positive aspect of the Ben Johnson bust was that, after decades of drug cheating in track and field, and the subsequent bleeding over of drugs into other Olympic sports and football and cycling, it was thought that catching the highest profile athlete in the world was what it would take to clean the collective blood of all athletes. We were naïve then. We still hadn't widened our eyes to realize that athletes' manipulating their chemistries was not a decades-old but a centuries-old tradition, stretching all the way back to the ancient Greeks and their teas brimming with the testosterone from bulls. Shortly after the Ben Johnson crisis, we were dismayed to learn of drug cheating at the precious Tour de France. Again, we were na&ioum;ve. Professional cyclists had been injecting such amphetamine cousins as strychnine since way back in the late 1800's.

But we the public have come a long way since 1988. We are no longer na&ioum;ve. News in 2006 of the fastest man in the world being dirty no longer warrants front page headlines. Justin Gatlin's positive drug tests ran in small columns toward the back of the sports pages this summer.

The biggest star in baseball may be booed in various stadia for his ties to drug cheating, but we nevertheless acknowledge his accomplishment of passing Babe Ruth in home runs. And the Giants have once again agreed to pony up millions so that we can witness Barry Bonds chase Hank Aaron's all-time home run record next season.

Yes, we were rocked when Floyd Landis tested positive last summer and his Tour de France victory was thrown into question. But Landis is adamant in his appeals, has now had hip-replacement surgery, and says he is on track in training for next year's Tour. And you know what? We will no doubt follow next year's Tour. Just as we'll follow next year's home-run record-chase. Just as we'll tune in to the 100-meter dash at the next Olympics.

The ruse has been that we've had the impression in recent years that drugs have infiltrated the noble realm of sports. Sure, the menu of drugs has expanded. Endurance athletes now have all the ammunition to cheat that was once the domain of sprinters. The sophistication of masking agents and techniques of cycling the drugs in the off-season, to avoid getting caught, has grown. But what's new is not the reality that a wide variety of athletes take a wide variety of banned chemicals toward the end of performing at a higher level. What's new is a press corps able and willing to report the cheating.

Monica Lewinsky was not the first adultress to cavort with a President within the halls of the White House. And Barry Bonds is not the first ball player to pop a few muscle-building pills. The press is too well-connected now to let any sundry activities slide. And it would seem that the more we know, the less we care.

2006 is not the year of the drugged athlete. It's the year we the fans finally gave up and decided to turn a blind eye toward this growing number of less-than-upstanding performances. There will be more busts in 2007. The news will command less and less attention. And the day will arrive, sooner than later, when we formally announce the drugs an athlete uses, and we respond as casually as if we just learned what sneakers he wears.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad