Disregard everything you've read about Barry Bonds for a moment, and consider his neck. The mere size of the thing. It looks as big as one of his rookie-year thighs back when, at 185 pounds, he was a mere fraction of the 230-pounder he is now. But there's something else about it that's truly startling: It appears to have tight rolls of skin on the back, what juiced-up powerlifters call "neck hot dogs." On Bonds, they look more like neck labia, but then again, the fact that a baseball player has anything in common with a powerlifter is remarkable.
Bonds' assault on baseball's record books has outraged the sport's purists for years, and the published reports that he told a grand jury in December 2003 that he'd used substances that, according to prosecutors, matched the description of steroids, were the least surprising bombshell since Pete Rose admitted he really had placed a few bets. Bonds seemed to cover himself in a veil of naiveté--you have to laugh at the part where he reportedly said he thought the steroids were nothing more powerful than flaxseed oil and arthritis balm--and nobody in his right mind is buying it.
Forget all that for now. Instead, look at the probable evidence of Bonds' drug use that's been staring us in the face since he raped baseball's most hallowed single-season record by hitting 73 home runs in 2001.
Bonds, you see, is 40, an age at which he should be past his muscle-building, home-run-hitting prime by a good six to 10 years. Yet he gives the impression he's just getting started. In 2004, Bonds had the greatest season in baseball history, as measured by combining his on-base and slugging percentage, considered by baseball experts as the best statistical measure of a player's impact. He surpassed the previous best total--set by Babe Ruth at age 25--by 3%.
The most likely explanation for this midlife prowess is steroids, and the proof that he'd taken them was slowly accumulating even before someone leaked the grand jury transcripts to the San Francisco Chronicle last December.
Still, we believe the exposure of Bonds as a juicemaster is just a small tip of a very big iceberg. Sports have probably never been as saturated with performance-enhancing drugs as they are today, even as testing gets more sophisticated and more athletes do the sports-page perp walk.
And here's the scary part: It could actually get worse.
Dawn of the Dopers
One good thing you can say about Bonds is that he didn't introduce drugs to sports. In fact, athletes have sought an advantage since the dawn of formal competition.
The modern sports era began in the late 19th century, and even then, doping was widespread. Long-distance runners and cyclists alike experimented with nitroglycerin and even strychnine to gain an edge on their competitors
. Dianabol, the first commercially produced steroid, entered the weightlifting haven of York, Penn., in the late 1950s. By the time the International Olympic Committee banned steroids in 1975, their use was considered nearly universal among strength, speed, and power athletes. Still, it took another 15 years for the U.S. government to finally outlaw their purchase and sale in 1990.
Today, of the four major American team sports, only the NFL has what appears to be a serious drug-testing program. But consider: Even though the NFL instituted drug testing in the mid-1980s and now tests most of its athletes multiple times throughout the year, between 1984 and 2004, the average size of the offensive linemen on one NFL team increased 19%--from 260 to 309 pounds, according to Sports Illustrated. It's not like all these guys suddenly figured out how to eat.
The NFL's drug-testing policy is stringent compared with major-league baseball's and the NBA's. And the NHL doesn't even have drug testing.
"It's a joke," says Linn Goldberg, M.D., a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University and a recently retired testing official for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He wonders if U.S. professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey can even be considered true sports anymore. "They're just businesses," he says, "just like World Wrestling Entertainment."
Many experts believe the leagues' drug testing is little more than PR to keep fans interested. "Money controls sport, and the NFL and baseball just don't want serious testing," says a former strength coach at a major university who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Like just about anyone involved in the strength and conditioning of athletes, he laughs at the very idea that guys like Barry Bonds expect anyone to believe they're drug-free. "I don't care who you are, you aren't going to gain that kind of muscular weight as an adult male," he says. "It just doesn't happen without drugs."