I don't remember when I first heard about steroids. Probably it was around 1972, when they were first banned by the International Olympic Committee and I was on the track team in high school. If there was a debate about steroids in the papers, I didn't pay much attention to it, mostly, I suspect, because I didn't think they bore relevance to my life as an athlete. I considered them the province of weightlifters, shot-putters, football players and other "big" athletes—not skinny distance runners like me.
This I do remember: I passed the summer of 1981 in a state of giddy transport, and from that I conclude that I cannot have known much about steroids yet. That was the summer Steve Overt and Seb Coe snatched the world mile record back and forth like a couple of kids fighting over candy. By then I was teaching junior high English at Princeton Day School, and most mornings that summer my fellow teacher and running partner Eamon Downey and I would drive to a nearby deli for coffee and The New York Times. Every day, it seemed—though, of course, this was not literally true—one of the two Brits, each so charismatic in his own way, had run some stunning time: if not a world record, then something very close to it. For runners like Eamon and me, it was the equivalent of reading that men had walked on the moon. Anything seemed possible.
I've lost the capacity for that sort of exhilaration. This summer's unsurprising revelations of drug use among riders in the Tour de France and alleged drug-sample tampering by Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, and the bans of two U.S. track and field stars, sprinter Dennis Mitchell and shot-putter Randy Barnes, felt more like d�j� vu than shock. My capacity for wonder has slipped away gradually over the years, starting in 1983, when I learned that steroids would also help skinny distance runners like me. If our bodies could tolerate two hard track sessions a week without steroids, we would probably be able to handle three or four with them. Sure enough, at the 1984 Olympics, one of those skinny distance runners, Martti Vainio of Finland, tested positive for steroids after finishing second in the 10,000 meters.
The use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs has covered the sport with a great ugly cloud. At the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials in New Orleans, when the Supreme Court granted Butch Reynolds a temporary restraining order allowing him to compete despite an earlier positive drug test, for which he had been banned for two years, I asked a respected track and field journalist, a former athlete, if he thought Reynolds was guilty. "I have no idea, but I suspect so," he said. "Why? Forty-three twenty-nine." He was referring to Reynolds's world record of 43.29 seconds in the 400 meters, a time .57 of a second faster than anyone else had ever run.
And there, in a nutshell, is the awful bind that track fans find themselves in: Any dazzling world record instantly raises the specter of cheating. Whatever miraculous feats I may witness in the future—a man long-jumping 30 feet, a woman running a four-minute mile—I doubt I'll shake off the conviction that those marks have not been achieved naturally.
This sorry state is not the fault solely of athletes, most of whom, I think, would love to see a return to the level playing field of the presteroid era. But where's the incentive? Meet promoters sell tickets based on the promise of records; agents make more money as their athletes run faster or jump higher; federation officials obtain sponsorship based on how hot their sport is. The last thing these people want is a scandal. That's why Olympic officials trumpeted the fact that of the 1,800 drug tests conducted at the Atlanta Games, only two were positive. It's great p.r.; it's what we all want to hear.
A 70-foot-plus shot-putter once told me that he believed no one had ever thrown 70 feet without an artificial boost; the human body just isn't built to do that any more than it's built to race over the Alps day after day on a bicycle. So imagine yourself a young shot-putter, in love with your event. Do you stay clean and top out at, say, 66 feet, never having reached the glorious European circuit, beaten meet after meet by guys you're sure are juiced? Virtue may be its own reward, but if you're willing to be honest, I think you'll agree that's not an easy decision.
Unfortunately, several decades of, first, no testing and then virtually meaningless testing opened a Pandora's box of artificially boosted performances that raised fans' expectations. A few years ago I stood in Stanford Stadium with discus thrower John Powell. He pointed to the huge, empty stands surrounding us and reminded me that he had seen them full for one of the U.S.- U.S.S.R. dual meets in the early 1960s. "Would all those people come out again to watch sprinters run 10.2?" he asked.
How do we fix this mess? Here are two suggestions that might offer a first step.
First, since human evolution can't keep pace with our hunger for new records, and neither can advances in training, why not reemphasize competition over records? Who can actually see the difference between a 9.84 100 and a 10.04 100? But a close race, with two or three athletes straining toward the finish, now, that's exciting. Admittedly, reeducating the public to look at track and field this way would be hard, especially when seemingly everyone—TV commentators, meet promoters, this magazine-regards records as the measure of a great meet.