The list goes on and on. Allegations of performance enhancing drug* use by professional athletes seems to be as common an occurrence on our nightly news as reports of crude oil hitting yet another record high.
In this age of seaside laboratories with catchy acronyms, designer drugs branded, marketed and sold with the zeal and skill of a global conglomerate and the tacit approval from rap stars to the Hollywood elite to professional athletes - names like stanazonol, HGH and "the Clear" now seem to share the glaring spotlight of stardom as much as those who use them.
Contrary to all the scientific fact detailing the horrors that some of these performance enhancing drugs can inflict on the human body, athletes are lining up to try the newest offerings from the likes of BALCO promising better, faster and stronger. The stakes are high and the risks great, yet the potential for a younger player to make the show, a marginal player to stay there or an aging vet to make it one more season seems to be a greater sirens' call than any of us might imagine.
Being the astute readers you are, you must have noticed that the first five names listed were those of Major League Baseball players. The recent report and hearings on performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball, conducted by Senator George Mitchell, that brought about the Clemens vs McNamee catfight which played out before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for the entire world to witness, was just the latest in a parade of allegations of rampant steroid use in baseball. While baseball has stood alone under the white hot spotlight of media and governmental scrutiny, they are - by no means - alone in their association with and alleged use of performance enhancing drugs in their sport.
As you also noticed, the remaining names on my list were spread amongst track and field, cycling, wrestling and football. There were many more from which to choose and, sadly enough, the list will continue to grow with household names currently suiting up for our favorite teams. There were two major sports not accounted for by the above list - basketball and hockey - and there might be some sense in it. In both sports, the emphasis is on quick, fluid movements that often change direction and rely on deceptiveness and skill rather than just blowing over someone, trying to gain an additional three miles per hour on a fastball or knocking the snot out of a pitched ball. Hockey and Basketball (ban) have long seasons (not conducive to steroid related wear and tear on the body
), require frequent shifts with huge physical exertion in a small time frame (where sprinting and banging into other large men in the paint or on skates would seem to be counterproductive to knee and joint health thus dramatically shortening a playing career
) and are based not only on strength, but also on speed, evasiveness and pinpoint timing (where the goal of being bigger is not necessarily better).
Does that mean that hockey is immune to the very real human temptation to compete at a high level and win no matter what the cost? Of course not. Does it mean that hockey is full of designer drug injecting, HGH and testosterone-fueled freaks of nature? Nope. The truth is that performance enhancing drugs are very likely a crutch for marginal players that might be on their way out due to Darwinian survival of the fittest, young bucks who think that being bigger and stronger might give them an edge to make a squad or the aging veteran whose body is battered and needs to heal faster or lose his job or simply just wants one more shot at staying in the league. Whatever the reason, it is more than likely that the number of players using these substances is vastly smaller than in football or baseball. The reality is that the end result of a steroid-induced body does not fit with the requirements of the new NHL, where speed kills. To their credit, the most recent CBA has adopted a strict Performance Enhancing Substances Program where players are subject to up to two random, no notice drug tests during the season for those substances. The punishments are severe - with a 20 game suspension for the first infraction, 60 for a second and a lifetime ban on the third misstep. Now if the CBA would only take the matter of other drugs more seriously...the real elephant in the corner that no one wants to talk about.
Nope...the elephant in the corner of the NHL is not the performance enhancing, designer drugs splashed across media outlets but an old friend to many NHL locker rooms - stimulants, Sudies, Ripped Fuel. Call it what you want, the culprit is the same - pseudoephedrine. This legal, over the counter nasal decongestant continues to be as much a part of the pregame routine as which sock goes on first or whether the rose goes in front.
Former Montreal Canadien defenceman, Stephane Quintal, said "he believes 40 per cent of the players he's encountered have used stimulants." Another anecdotal story comes from former athletic trainer for the Detroit Red Wings, John Wharton, who recalled when he started with the team in 1991 that Sudafed sat on a table in the dressing room "like a bowl of fruit." He put a stop that practice immediately. I would hazard a guess that bottles of Sudafed could still be found in most dressing rooms whose use has nothing, whatsoever, to do with stuffy noses. There has been a move towards naturally occurring forms of ephedrine (since it was banned as a suppliment in 2004), such as the Chinese herb Ma-Huang, that can be found in products like "Ripped Fuel". These caffeine-pseudoephedrine mixes have many of the same end results as their amphetamine-like sisters - stimulate the brain, increase heart rate and blood pressure, and greatly reduced fatigue levels over short, high intensity activity (like a first period shift after flying from Vancouver to Montreal on back to back nights).
While the emphasis on steroids and HGH abuse by the NHL is laudable, it can be said that the NHLPA has fought tooth and nail over the past 20 years to keep the testing of stimulants off the table. It appears that the NHL and NHLPA want to create their own list of what is prohibited without having to conform to any outside protocol like the one created by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The NHLPA has gone as far as to say that the stringent code demanded by the WADA is "inappropriate for our league." Whether this is a blatant attempt to keep the camel's nose from getting under the tent on this issue or just the "circle the wagons" mentality that pervades the NHL players union on issues where scrutiny is not welcomed, the end result is clear - the use of stimulants will not be forced out of the game.
Is a player using a stimulant to get up for a game on par with someone abusing anabolic steroids?
No, but as long as stimulants are given tacit approval by the league and the union, they will continue to be the elephant in the corner that no one wants to talk about. Former Wings trainer, John Wharton, went on to say, "[t]here are some guys who have been able to tolerate [large doses of pseudoephedrine]. The most I've seen a player take is eight pills. That dose would put some people in the hospital."
The NHLPA fighting for the "right" to play outside the bounds of good sportsmanship, where skill and desire may not carry the day, is troubling given the purported frequency of use of stimulants by its members. The omission of stimulant testing from the overall drug policy of the league seems to run counter to the goals of fair play, sportsmanship and respect for the game and hockey is poorer for it.
Thanks for reading...
(*edit - thanks SZ*) - the word is druGs not druMs, though performance enchancing drums would be really cool and much healthier.