Ryan: Are steroid-using athletes cheaters or acquiescing to fan expectations?

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Ryan: Are steroid-using athletes cheaters or acquiescing to fan expectations?

Dan Ryan, Columnist

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Last week, I was playing tennis with a Spanish triathlete when I mentioned, in passing, that I was planning on going for a 5K run later that day. He decided to go with me.

As we reached the end and I was stumbling and gasping for air more than I was actually running (apparently when the triathlete said “run,” he really meant “sprint”), he asked me how I felt. I shot him a dirty look. He laughed and said, “If you followed Lance Armstrong’s lead, you’d be ready for another round.”

For the next 15 minutes I listened in disbelief as this cyclist, triathlete, marathon runner and Ironman filled me in on how steroids can give you an incredible edge in endurance sports and how those sports have serious problems with all manner of doping.

“How many Tour de France riders do you really think weren’t doping when Lance won those medals?” he asked me. I had never thought about it. “And why has Rafael Nadal been out of the game so long?” he continued. “And how did Novak Djokovic play like he wasn’t tired the day after a marathon of a match?”

That conversation was a mini-revelation. I had never really wanted to know how many of my favorite athletes used steroids to gain an edge. I was even less interested in what percentage of athletes in major sports were doping. Ignorance is bliss, and I was happy believing in a world where competition was clean and fair.

Many things athletes do today — Armstrong winning again and again with ease or Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s record — simply could not be done without performance-enhancing drugs. The human body has limits, and yet we all watch in awe as our heroes shred those limits and shoot beyond. We unknowingly (or begrudgingly) support their doping because it makes great TV.

I have always been an extreme purist when it comes to steroids, especially in baseball. As far as I’m concerned, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire never reached the majors. Their stats are meaningless to me. The whole idea behind sports is competition between two (or more) people, and whoever has more God-given talent and hard-earned ability deserves the victory and praise.

But listening to the testimony of a man who trains athletes for a living gave me pause. If, for example, most competitors in a sport use steroids — as seems to be the case in baseball, cycling and possibly tennis — should we forgive and glorify the ones who still perform above the rest? In theory, the playing field is even. “Everybody is doping, and this individual came out on top,” one could argue.

The pressure to win in sports is so intense. Not only is there a competitive fire in every single professional athlete, but they also need to earn a paycheck, fame and admiration from their peers. So, for a moment, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a pro, walking around the locker room as his teammates inject themselves with steroids.

Right or wrong, the feeling I imagined shook my strong anti-steroid belief. It’s difficult to blame someone for being human, and watching your peers succeed by using artificial substances must be intolerable. In essence, you have no choice: Eat or be eaten.

And I came to an interesting conclusion at the end of four days spent mulling the subject over. We need to ask ourselves, as fans, a fundamental question: What do we want sporting events to be? Are they purely forms of entertainment? If that’s the case, steroids are exactly what we want. Athletes become entertainers, and we get to watch incredible feats of human strength and endurance. Everybody wins.

If we decide that sports are more than that, however, we face many dilemmas. Athletes become role models, heroes, the perfect image of what competition should be. Sports take on a greater meaning, and more rules need to be implemented to make sure they stay clean. Nobody hits 800 home runs or wins ten Tour de France titles, but we’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that we’re watching people who earned their spot in the limelight through countless hours of hard work, sweat and determination.

I don’t have any posters of entertainers on the walls in my room. I have posters of athletes, and I’d like to keep it that way.

Dan Ryan is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at danielryan2014@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to forum@dailynorthwestern.com.

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