Do we still give a damn about doping in sports?
Hey real quick, is it even worth testing for that good-good anymore? Or are we just providing the faintest possible smokescreen to soothe our weary souls?
So Conor McGregor is looking pretty good these days. Anyone seen that guy lately? Strolling around the deck of his yacht, snapping pictures for the ‘Gram with his shirt off and a pair of shorts he apparently found in the youth section. Guy is looking thick, tight, ripped. Seems like his recovery from a devastating broken leg is going pretty good then, yeah?
Oh and here’s something kinda funny: According to its own public database, USADA hasn’t been out to the test the bloke at all this year. And people have noticed. USADA’s response was this cryptic statement suggesting that maybe McGregor had gotten himself removed from the testing pool one way or another, at least for the time being, and would therefore have to get back in for six months before he could fight again (unless the UFC exercises its power to waive that rule, like it did for Brock Lesnar at UFC 200 … where he failed the drug test).
Point is, some fans and even fellow fighters have done the math on McGregor’s movie-ready physique and his recent horrifying injury and his total lack of USADA tests, and what they came up with was a resounding, HMMMM THAT’S INTERESTING…
Which brings me to the question: How much do we care whether or not McGregor is or has recently been on the gear? And that goes not just for him, a super rich exception to basically every MMA rule who has for years now seemed like any fight could very well be his last, but also for all fighters, and even all pro athletes. To what extent are performance-enhancing drugs still an indelible stain on the legacy of anyone caught using them, and to what extent have they just become a thing rich people do when they want to look good with their shirts off?
That last part sounds more flippant than I mean it, but I do think we’ve seen a major cultural shift with public perception of this stuff in the last decade or so. I know my own attitude about PEDs in MMA has evolved. It’s not that I think they’re good, or that we should return to the TRT era when guys in their thirties starting rolling up with doctors’ notes and suspiciously ripped physiques. I still think that period of MMA was Actually Bad, at least in part because of how it asked us all to swallow a load of obvious bullshit and pretend it was just necessary medical intervention. (Lol remember when Chael Sonnen said he’d literally die if he didn’t take synthetic testosterone? Fucking 2012 was wild, man.)
But it’s a lot harder to be an absolutist about PEDs these days. Some of that is probably just fatigue. Some of it is the type of cynicism that’s born from experience. You follow pro sports for long enough, eventually you start to think that there’s no such thing as totally clean athletes (or at least totally clean superstars). There’s just some who haven’t been caught yet and maybe never will be.
And really, do we actually want to catch them? It makes things so complicated. Just look at what happened in baseball this year with Aaron Judge chasing the single-season home run record. The big homie hit 62, which is good enough for the American League record. But the real record is 73, set by Barry Bonds in 2001. That’s how the record books read, anyway. Even though, at the time, there was plenty of talk about how you could actually see Bonds’ head getting bigger, he did set the damn record. Still, there are people who don’t want to recognize him for it, either because we now know (rather than just strongly fucking suspect) he was juicing harder than Jack LaLanne when he hit all those dingers, or just because we prefer some other player and/or team.
That’s no fun, right? To have, even if only in our minds, two sets of competing records? Then again, if we find out some day that maybe the physical goddamn specimen that is Aaron Judge wasn’t getting by on just protein shakes and Wheaties either, would that actually shock us?
It’s different in fight sports, though. For a couple different reasons. One, we’re not talking about hitting a ball over a fence here. We’re talking about dealing out brain damage. We’re talking about immediate physical consequences that can last a lifetime. If you don’t think so, go ask Michael Bisping what he thinks of TRT era Vitor Belfort. Just make sure you don’t eat lunch before you ask, because chances are he’s going to remove his goddamn eyeball to show you what that one fight against an obviously enhanced opponent ultimately cost him.
Of course, nobody tells themselves that’s what they’re doing when they get on that good-good. They’re not trying to hurt anybody. At least not, you know, any more than they always are in a professional fight. What they’re trying to do is recover faster, heal injuries, enable themselves to put even more of that hard, grueling work in. It’s not a shortcut; it’s just a body hack.
Problem is, if you and your opponent both agree to forego that same body hack, then you go and do it anyway, that’s cheating. Sports media have definitely overdone at times and made it out to be some great moral panic of drugs in sports, which it isn’t. There’s no such thing as an immoral drug (except maybe dork-ass shit like kratom). It’s just that seeking an advantage your opponent doesn’t also get to use is straight-up unfair.
Plus, it opens us up to an endless arms race, with everyone trying to get the newer and better drugs. As several pro fighters who didn’t want to dope up have also pointed out to me over the years, it also creates a sport where drug use is basically the price of entry. I mean, would you want to get in a cage and fight other people for money if you knew everyone but you was on steroids? So then, in addition to all the usual brain and body risks that come with a violent sport like this, you also have to take drugs that can shut down your normal hormone production and potentially damage your heart.
(Side note: A couple years ago I talked to a nurse who told me about treating a former MMA fighter in his late forties whose heart had become so enlarged due to years of steroid use that it was now struggling to push enough blood through. Obviously, she told him, he needed to get off the stuff. But he worried what would become of his body now without it. He wasn’t even fighting anymore. He just didn’t want to face the reality of what his body might actually be now after years of being on the juice. So maybe it’s not all just fun and shredded abs, is my point.)
For fighters who don’t want to get on it, this reality must be a major bummer. So too is a world where the star fighters with more money and better teams around them always stay one step ahead of the regulators. Because that’s part of the problem too, right? There’s a lot of money in successfully doping in pro sports. There’s not a lot of money in successfully catching dopers. USADA certainly hasn’t caught many big name fighters in the UFC recently, and even when the tests have nabbed someone with a name – thinking of a name that rhymes with Don Phones, here – we’re far more annoyed at the interruption to the schedule or the ensuing muddy waters around the denials than we are appreciative of the efforts to ensure a clean sport.
At this point, I can’t really blame anybody for feeling like any drug testing program is a silly aggravation at best or a cynical smokescreen at worst. I think maybe the only thing worse than having an anti-doping program is not having one, or having one that is hilariously weak, like what we used to get by on back when it was fight night drug tests by hapless state commissions and not a whole lot else. People might say they want to throw open the doors and see PEDs for all, but I think if we actually saw what that looked like in combat sports we might not like it for very long. And the people who say it should be allowed up to a point, well, then you’ve still got to have some testing to program to make sure people are staying within the allowable doping limits, which means you’re right back where you started in terms of testing and enforcement.
Mostly what sucks about the doping issue in sports is how it makes us wonder. You want to just enjoy the sport, be entertained, maybe even be inspired by what humans can push themselves to accomplish. It kind of spoils that when you find out they went from mediocre to all-star thanks to the secret sauce, and don’t tell me that the drugs aren’t that good because then I’m going to ask why people are willing to risk an awful lot to keep using them.
If actors want to get ripped for their action movie roles, or to get a spot in the next superhero franchise? Sure, fine. Same with, uh, various executives. As long as they don’t also try to spin these expansive yarns about the crazy workout routine or diet regimen while leaving out the other stuff that’s responsible for their brand new abs, I guess I don’t care. But as cynical as I might be at times, I still don’t believe we really want to see sports become a contest between chemists. Because then we’re one step closer to turning this shit into a science fair. And then the nerds will have won, my friends. The nerds will have truly won.
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