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For a Few Atoms More

When the game becomes less of a game

Roald Hoffmann

To enhance our appearance we will do terrible things to our bodies. And when there is money—or its correlate, fame—to be gained, athletes will seek to enhance their performance in sometimes terrible ways, using chemicals, natural and synthetic, to make themselves stronger, faster, leaner. With consequences that may be terrible.

Floyd LandisClick to Enlarge ImageThis has probably been true for millennia. I recently passed pedestals hailing the athletes of ancient Ephesus, now in Turkey; I am sure they tried diets and herbs to get their statues on those pedestals. It's not just professional athletes who are responsible: Nations (such as the former German Democratic Republic), and we ourselves share the blame, with our gladiatorial instincts and (male dominated?) dependence on the forces of fandom and partisanship.

In the recently released "Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball," former Senator George J. Mitchell says, "For more than a decade, there has been widespread anabolic steroid use," and "the illegal use of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and similar drugs poses a serious threat to the integrity of the game of baseball." Barry Bonds has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his testimony denying anabolic steroid use; his trainer has been convicted of distributing steroids. Marion Jones has admitted to lying about her use of a steroid before the Olympics in which she won five gold medals.

What is going on? How and why did our athletes come to use "the clear" and "the cream," as Bonds and Jones called the substances their trainers gave them? What are these substances? And how do we detect them? In an approach to this sordid story, in which no one comes out clean, let us go back to the sport regrettably tied most closely to doping in the public imagination,  competitive cycling.

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