Presence of drugs in sports: we continue to whistle past the graveyard

May 15, 2007 6:11 AM

While the world waits breathlessly to see if Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, shows up or stays away from Barry Bonds breaking of Hank Aaron’s 755 home run record, the specter of drugs continues to haunt sports.

The papers began to fill with stories of Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro again in anticipation of the big day, and the keeper of asterisks in baseball’s multi-million record book is dusting them off. Surely the suspicions of steroid use by Bonds will follow him into the record books, somehow. And if Selig doesn’t show up for the fateful blow, perhaps Senator George J. Mitchell will be there.

Mitchell has been entrusted with the unenviable job of digging out major league drug use and the players using it. If he thought his duties working for peace in the Mideast was difficult, he must be longing for Baghdad again as he tracks down the artificial musclemen of the sport.

While all of the speculation continued to build, a friend of mine named Harold Howe, who edits a very good racing magazine called The Harness Edge in Ontario, scored a major coup. He collared the hard-to-corral Dick Pound, founder and master of the World Anti-Doping Agency, for an in-depth interview on the worldwide problem.

Pound was an athlete himself in his youth, an Olympic swimmer 47 years ago. A lawyer now, he also has turned author, with a book called Inside Dope — How Drugs are the Biggest Threat to Sports, Why You Should Care, and What Can Be Done About Them.

Harold started doing lengthy and insightful interviews years ago, and has done a super job with them. I knew he had another winner when I read the opening lines of his interview with Pound, who told him, "I think few amateur and professional sports have any real understanding of the extent of performance enhancing drug usage, particularly in professional sports because the various sports deny that it exists. They have no testing programs in place for the most part and if they do exist, they are so weak that they are not going to catch the users."

That was all Harold Howe needed. He went for the jugular, asking Pound if he thought administrators in major sports were afraid of digging too deep for fear of hurting their games.

"That’s a classic combination of denial and whistling past the graveyard. The sport would be much better if athletes were playing fair and the message that the sport delivers would be better. They’d have more people interested and more respect for the athletes in it. Now I think their brand is diminishing month by month as they continue to adhere to these foolish attitudes."

Howe asked Pound if he thought things had reached a point where athletes and others believe the end justifies the means.

Pound did not duck. "I think that in the last few decades that is an attitude that has grown, in business, the media, academia, organized religion, you name it, and it has spread to sport. People are looking for the advantage and seem willing to do whatever it takes, even though they know it’s cheating."

And then the kicker.

Pound said his World Anti Doping Agency and Olympic budget — he has been a top Olympic Committee official for years — is”¦take a guess.

A hundred thousand?

Half a million?

A million?

Try 25 million dollars a year. And about a quarter of that, or more than $6 million, goes into scientific research.

Can sports win this battle?

Pound thinks so.

Howe asked him if a level playing field could ever be attained, saying cynics said no.

"It is a cynical view of the world and it usually is followed by the theory, ”˜So let’s let everyone do as they want.’ There will always be somebody who says, ”˜To hell with the rules. I don’t care what you’ve promised, I don’t care what I promised, I don’t care what our sport does, this is what I’m going to do.’ If you can get 99.9% not to do it because it’s wrong or dangerous to horses and humans, and give them the confidence you will catch the 0.1%, then I think you’ve won."

The interview is a winner. Pound’s book is too, and it should be required reading for everyone in sports, from home run hitters to the lowest rookie.