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."
When Needle Meets Buttock
Part of the problem with steroids is that science has never quite known what to make of the stuff. As recently as the early '90s, the "official" view was that synthetic testosterone--steroids--didn't increase muscle size or strength.
Yet even back then, scientist Tom Storer, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at El Camino College and professor of medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine, didn't buy the message. "The research just wasn't very good," he says. "It had a lot of design flaws. In most cases, the dose was too small."
So Storer joined a steroid-research team led by Shalender Bhasin, Ph.D. In 1996, they conducted a study that finally proved what every athlete and gym rat on Earth had known since the '60s: Steroids do, indeed, increase muscle mass and strength, and the bigger the dose, the better the results. And even though there are no studies directly showing that steroids increase speed, performance in power sports such as sprinting is "highly related to basic measures of strength," says Tom Fahey, Ed.D., a sports-training expert at California State University, Chico. It's an elementary connection.
However, the issue is bigger than that: Strength, size, and speed may be just part of what steroids do for an athlete. One of the biggest myths about steroid use is that the drugs don't improve an athlete's reaction time and hand-eye coordination. It's the message the sports pages are constantly trotting out whenever Bonds breaks another record: "Steroids can't help you hit a curveball."
But sports columnists make lousy endocrinologists. When you step into the sports-science world, there's reason to think steroids are even more beneficial to athletes than most people already believe. For example, "Testos-terone seems to enhance response time and decision making," says Carole Hooven, Ph.D., an anthropologist at Harvard who studies testosterone and male behavior.
In a major study published in 2004 in the journal Neuropsychologia, Hooven and her colleagues found that men with higher testosterone levels could solve spatial-relationship problems faster and more accurately than their more hormonally challenged counterparts. It was a paper-and-pencil study, Hooven says, but it fits in with other published research showing the beneficial effects of testosterone on the male body.
"Testosterone enters a cell and acts like a nerve transmitter in the part of the brain that has to do with the fear response," Hooven says. Sports are all about fear, or at least stress. They're also about confidence, the sense that you're the dominant male and you can thump the living shit out of whoever crosses your path. Thus, says Hooven, a steroid-using athlete "could be faster, better prepared, and more confident, which all play into how well someone does in anything."
There's more: With steroid-induced increases in muscle size come more of all the things that make the muscles work, says Author L. Rea, a consultant and researcher for medical clinics specializing in hormone-replacement therapy and injury rehab. That means increases in the networks of nerves that provide muscles with their electrical signals, and more of the nutrients within muscles that provide the energy for a response to those electrical signals. The tally: "More energy, better endurance, greater contractile force, faster recovery, and improved cognitive capacity," Rea says.
That's just one type of drug. Baseball players are well-known to be ardent consumers of amphetamines, caffeine, and other stimulants that improve reaction time. Then there's human growth hormone, a panacea of physique transformation, since it signals your body to both build muscle and burn fat. It's been a "free pass" drug for athletes for decades--they haven't been tested for it. "It's obvious that many athletes are taking high doses of growth hormone," Fahey says, noting that many take up to 8 international units (IU) a day. "There's no reliable test so far, and the price on the black market has come down from about $20 per IU to about $4."
Passing the Test
The first full-blown steroid tests, at the 1983 Pan American games in Venezuela, snared 19 athletes and sent a couple dozen more scurrying for the first plane out before they could be tested. But even that didn't turn the tide against steroids as much as some might have hoped. Just two years ago, the former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee's anti-doping organization provided 30,000 documents showing that American officials had systematically protected athletes who'd repeatedly flunked drug tests. In all, it was reported that 19 American medalists were given a pass into the Games between 1988 to 2000, despite allegedly testing positive for banned substances.
In a sort of karmic retaliation, the 2004 Athens Games featured the most elaborate drug testing ever, and an unprecedented 24 athletes were busted, including three gold medalists who had to return the hardware.
The path to cleanliness is messy, though. Truly random drug testing, Goldberg says, means that the athletes have to tell the testers where they're going to be at all times. Testers can show up at an athlete's home, at his gym, or at his place of employment. And the tester never rings twice: If the athlete doesn't pee in a cup on the spot, with the tester watching, the "testee" is in trouble. Avoiding a drug test without a reasonable excuse is the same as flunking one. Now imagine Barry Bonds, or any bulked-up star in the NFL or NBA, submitting to that kind of scrutiny. Even when an athlete in a pro-sports league is tested, the protocol is nothing like the one used for Olympic athletes, who are tested for as many as 70 substances, including not only steroids but also chemicals used to mask steroid use.
Of course, no one believes that all Olympic cheaters are caught, but compare their procedures to baseball's current policy, in which athletes are tested once a year--at the ballpark--for just a handful of substances, and you realize what a joke it is to pretend that Major League Baseball is serious about weeding out the dopers.
Money Changes Everything
An interesting and fair question: If the major pro sports know that their drug-testing protocols are laughable, not to mention easily beatable, why do they have them at all? A cynic could say that it's just to fool the fans. Major League Baseball, for example, saw record attendance in the 2004 season after it instituted drug testing.
But perhaps the leagues should take it more seriously, if for no other reason than because of what it can do to the teams' bottom line.
"If everyone in a sport takes drugs and all the players are equally enhanced, the identity of the winners and losers is much less likely to change," says Stanford economist Roger Noll, Ph.D. "The total amount of winnings available to the victors may not increase, but all the participants are made worse off by the direct and indirect costs of drugs."
In other words, in theory, it should behoove leagues and athletes to support the toughest drug testing possible. The All-Stars would still be All-Stars, but without the long-term risks to their health. And they'd also have protection against the non-All-Stars, those minor leaguers or bench players who may use massive quantities of drugs to give the natural-born superstars a run for their money.
To make it work, though, the leagues would have to get tough with all their players: From the scrubs to the record breakers. Until that happens, it's Barry's world. And as long as we keep shelling out for tickets and merchandise, he'll continue to let us live in it.