Guest Column: Why drug testing of pro athletes is essential

San Jose Mercury News

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Friday, Jan. 18:

Lance Armstrong’s confession, after years of aggressive denial that he took banned substances, reveals the magnitude of the challenge drug testers face. Armstrong was tested hundreds of times for more than a decade but never produced a positive result. The world’s greatest cyclist became the world’s biggest known sports cheat only because his teammates testified against him.

Coming on the heels of the baseball Hall of Fame vote keeping out Barry Bonds, this latest episode in the annals of doping has sports fans asking: If it’s so hard to catch the cheaters, why test at all? Why not just let athletes use anything they want?

The answer is: Our kids.

The full, long-term risks of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids and human growth hormone aren’t fully known, but we know they can have lifelong implications, especially when they’re used by teens who are still growing. That’s why they’re illegal unless a doctor prescribes them.

But young people by nature are poor evaluators of risk; a possibly shortened life span and other threats to long-term health are not on the radar for a 16-year-old, whose whole world may turn on sports.

Based on conservative estimates, more than half a million 14- to 17-year-olds in this country use steroids. That’s about 10 percent of male students and 1 percent of girls.

Young males admit they frequently “stack” performance-enhancing drugs in hopes of instant results, using two or more at a time at doses much higher than any doctor would dream of prescribing – even though knowing that if they get caught, they’ll be in trouble. Imagine if the message were that doping is OK, all that matters is results. Even now, some sports booster parents help get their kids these drugs.

The most common ones are:

Anabolic steroids, which are synthetic versions of testosterone that can help develop muscle mass. But taken by youth, steroids can close crucial growth plates before they are fully developed. That can actually lead to stunted growth, and the effect can be irreversible. Steroids also can lead to hypertension and over-aggressive behavior, the worst possible thing for already violence-prone young males.

Human growth hormone, a small protein made by the pituitary gland, stimulates the growth of bone and cartilage and increases energy and muscle mass. Experts are divided on the extent of its ability to enhance athletic performance, but they agree it can cause nerve, muscle and joint pain, contribute to numbness, carpal tunnel syndrome and high cholesterol and increase the risk of diabetes and cancerous tumors.

Holding up drug abusers as role models for youth would be a terrible thing. There’s no choice but to keep trying to get ahead of the cheaters.

The Olympics, NFL and Major League Baseball take in more than $20 billion every year but spend only about $50 million on their testing programs. Lance Armstrong’s and Barry Bonds’ combined net worth is $200 million. Small wonder the cheaters are still miles ahead of the testers.