Why Athletes Take Steroids or Why We Need Government

AndreuI biked this morning in Rock Creek Park on my recumbent which resembles nothing so much as a barcalounger. With its aerodynamic plastic fairing or windshield, the Easy Racer moves pretty well. Still I’m sure I’m 10% slower than I would be on my 1992 Schwinn Paramount even though I haven’t ridden it in over a decade. For about 15 or 20 minutes I’d be faster on the Paramount or at least until stabbing arthritis-related pains running down the back of both arms and from the back of my neck to the top of my right buttock forced me to the roadside.

Riding a recumbent may not be as thrilling as riding a custom-built road racer but it’s a heckuva lot better than not riding at all. Most Sundays in the park I’m content to putter along at 16-18 mph on the flats. That’s probably the average speed of the many weekend bikers on Rock Creek’s roadways when the US Park Police closes them in the District of Columbia to automobile traffic. Of course, sleek speedsters zoom by while less aggressive riders from eighty to eighty amble along. But if I’m averaging 17 mph on the flats I’m doing okay.

Feeling extra-frisky today, I was doing more passing and less lagging than usual. Plus when I saw riders approaching from behind in my Easy Racer’s rear-view mirror, I kicked it up a notch rather than sliding meekly right to allow faster cyclists a clear passing lane. On my return trip north towards the Maryland line I saw a furiously pumping rider on a hybrid growing alarmingly large in the mirror. As we were climbing a relatively long moderately difficult hill, his significantly lighter steed gave him an advantage over my lazy-boy but I turned on what passes for my jets anyway.

Hybrid kept coming and I kept pushing. As the hill steepened near its end, I did not downshift, as I normally would have. Instead feeling the adrenaline kick in, I stayed in a higher and more powerful gear and pushed even harder. Rounding the final turn within 20 yards of the top, I snuck a glance in the rear-view.

My heart leaped when I saw hybrid had given up. Fading fast, his once-looming presence was now a barely perceptible speck. Winning felt great. Resisting the urge to unleash a primal screen, I crested the hill and coasted blissfully down.

Of course professional athletes take steroids. The difference between finishing first and fifth can mean many millions of dollars. 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was among the most famous athletes in the world with a net worth estimated at over $125 million when he was banned from cycling for taking performance enhancing drugs. Without them, he might have been about as famous and wealthy as his former teammate Frankie Andreu (who?) whose wife Betsy was one of Armstrong’s earliest and most vociferous detractors.

But the mini-Tour de France unfolding over a few hundred yards in Rock Creek Park points out another reason athletes and non-athletes take prohibited substances. With absolutely nothing at stake, I still pushed myself very hard to get to the top of a knoll first. It feels so great to win that many people will do just about anything to do so. The flip side of course is that losing sucks.

President Obama told Marc Maron the other day that he doesn’t like to play basketball much any more because he’s not as good as he used to be. “The guys I play with . . . sorta pity me and sympathize with me. They tolerate me, but we all know I’m the weak link on the court and I don’t like being the weak link.”

This nearly universal sentiment (at least among men) is exactly why we need government. Without enforceable rules governing behavior in competition and consequences for breaking them, people will do anything to win. Even with them, people still do just about anything to win.

In the late-90s when the extent of steroid use in major league baseball became widely known, some commentators said it didn’t matter much. I remember hearing Tony Kornheiser claim in the teeth of contrary evidence that steroids didn’t make much of a difference and that great players would be great with or without them. Instead, he argued, let ’em all use all they want and basically the result would be the same as it would otherwise be.

For Kornheiser I suppose, Baltimore Oriole Brady Anderson’s 50 home run explosion at the age of 32 in 1996 a year after he had hit 16 and 29 home runs more than his previous high didn’t increase his value at an age when most players are declining. Still Kornheiser kind of had a point. One could argue that cheater Barry Bonds trying to hit home runs off of cheater Roger Clemens is basically a push.

Steroid use in professional and top-amateur sports is a perfect example of the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma is a mind-game pitting against each other two individuals charged as co-conspirators. If neither talks, the prosecutor will only be able to convict them of a minor offense which will lead to each imprisoned for 5 years. If one confesses and rats out her partner but the other doesn’t, the rat will get a reduced sentence of 2 years for cooperating and the partner will get 20 years. If both confess, each will get 10.

The best composite result for the prisoners would be for both to keep silent. But each faces the dilemma whereby whatever her partner does she personally will be best off if she talks. In the real world, this dynamic nets district attorneys lots of confessions.

In major league baseball, the well-being of all players is highest if none use steroids. Whether dugouts are rife with PEDs or void of them, one team wins the World Series, there are two league MVPs and two Cy Young winners. It is true that the steroid-fueled home run battle between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire probably juiced attendance somewhat.  But the mirror image of individual success in sports is always individual failure.  On the field at least, baseball is a zero-sum game.

Ultimately PEDs don’t make things better for the collective, they make things worse. Users suffer a variety of negative side effects. But bacne, inexplicable rage, impotence, and massively swollen heads are prices many are more than willing to pay if the rewards are extraordinary wealth, undying fame, omnipresent adulation, and ultimately victory.

Abstainers pay too. They are less likely to win. In some sports, they may not be able to win. Between 1996 and 2010, nearly every bicyclist who finished first in the Tour de France was ultimately stripped of his title for using PEDs or kept it despite having either tested positive for or admitted to steroid use at some point in his career.

This is why we need government. Without collectively agreed upon and enforced rules with real teeth, the cheaters are in complete control. The rewards that come from taking unfair advantage of others are simply too great for any but the strongest willed to ignore and they pay a terribly unfair price for their forbearance. This is true whether the participants are baseball players or bankers playing with depositors’ money or foremen deciding whether to direct subordinates to work off the clock or industrialists leaking effluent waste into what was once an unsullied river.

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2 Responses to Why Athletes Take Steroids or Why We Need Government

  1. Shade says:

    The bike I like to ride has an electric assist motor in the hub that you might not even notice. The harder I pedal, the more the electric motor also kicks in. I would have passed you and laughed, though I’m sure I would stand no chance in a fair competition. I don’t like it when trails ban its use, cuz I don’t ride enough anymore to otherwise ride long distance.

  2. halginsberg says:

    From Shade: “The bike I like to ride has an electric assist motor“.
    From Hal: No comment. 😉

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