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Hanging from the BALCO-ny

Drug sting puts superstars' reputations at risk, but who really cares?

Posted: Friday February 13, 2004 3:10PM; Updated: Friday February 13, 2004 3:30PM
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Jason Giambi
Yankees slugger Jason Giambi's name has been mentioned in connection with the BALCO probe.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

On Thursday in Washington, indictments were handed down against four men charged with the distribution of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances, possibly to some of the most prominent athletes in the world. Among those indicted were Barry Bonds' personal trainer, as well as the track sprint coach who oversaw some of the most dramatic improvements in his sport over the past two years and 53-year-old Victor Conte, the man who founded BALCO, the company that allegedly provided the drugs.

The announcement leads to an important question: Does anybody care?

Let's review what is at stake in these indictments. If Conte and Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal trainer (who also worked with Jason Giambi, among others), provided steroids, such as the newly discovered THG, to Bonds, then Bonds' single-season home run record of 73, established in 2001, is certifiably a sham and the modern longball era a product of better baseball through chemistry.

If Remi Korchemny, 71, a track coach born in the Ukraine who once trained 1972 Olympic champion Valery Borzov, and who has recently become responsible for stunning improvements made by American women Kelli White and Chryste Gaines and Briton Dwain Chambers, was feeding steroids to his sprinters, the curtain has been thrown back on the long-suspect world of elite level sprinting.

If four members of the Oakland Raiders who tested positive for THG last fall, including robo-linebacker Bill Romanowski, were given their drugs by BALCO, the Sunday ritual of the NFL, with it's cartoon violence and religious fan fervor, is little more than a lab experiment gone wild.

The question again: Does anybody care?

In most major news outlets, word of the BALCO indictments was given prominent coverage but hardly the screaming headlines customarily associated with sweeping scandal and conspiracy. The NBA All-Star game will be played Sunday. The NASCAR season is getting under way. Pitchers and catchers will soon report to Spring Training. March Madness is scarcely a month away. The cycle spins on. There is little time for a doping controversy.

Six years ago, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in their home run battle across America during the long summer, there were whispers that McGwire was using performance-enhancing substances. The rumors were given life when a bottle of androstenedione was spotted by a reporter in McGwire's locker. Andro since has been banned. But it didn't matter to a public swept up in the drama.

Steroids don't make people hit a baseball any better, or so went the rationalization. Steroids are for bodybuilders and shotputters, not hitters. In fact, steroids allow people to train harder than ever, to get stronger while avoiding injuries. Steroids can make a good hitter great. Is this what happened with McGwire and Bonds? Do baseball fans really want to know, or do they just want to see if the Red Sox can make it to the World Series?

Sprinters Marion Jones and her boyfriend, Tim Montgomery (world record holder in the 100 meters) testified in the BALCO inquiry. So did boxer Shane Mosley. They were BALCO clients, in some form. Does this taint their performances? Or are Olympic track and field and professional boxing simply too far beneath the radar screen for the public to notice?

The reality is that Thursday's indictments are a test of the sports fan's conscience. There always have been rumors about the use of performance-enhancers. McGwire. Bonds. Lance Armstrong. Most of the NFL. Distance runners who shattered world records by huge margins in the mid- and late-'90s. But those were just rumors, with an occasional positive test that usually was litigated into submission.

The BALCO case is real. Attorney general John Ashcroft has indicated there will be more indictments and that athletes could be among those charged. Will the public be outraged to hear that Sunday's heroes (or Saturday's, or Thursday's) have achieved their greatness not just through good genetics and hard work, but also from test tubes? Or will the public shrug off such news? As in: What's the difference between THG and Vitamin C? What is the difference between the juice in a slugger's biceps and the silicone in a starlet's bosom? Both are entertainers. Gimme the remote and pass the nachos.

We live in a cynical and permissive world. I believe the sports-supporting public, in large part, would like to hear nothing of the reality of drug use. It is more enjoyable to watch without knowing. Controversy is for the real world, not sports. I believe the BALCO case will drag down the principles and perhaps a few athletes. I fear that once the dust settles, business as usual will resume, with new stars, new medicine men and new drugs.

I fear that nobody really cares.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.