December 09, 2004

Victor Conte's 20/20 Interview

I only got around to watching the Victor Conte 20/20 interview last night. The episode, entitled "Catch Me If You Can," aired on Friday, but I was travelling that day.

It's not every day that you see somebody admit to a criminal offense on network television. It's an interesting strategy for a defendant who is asking to have the charges against him dismissed. Obviously, this is a guy who values public attention more than he values his lawyers' advice. But the legal issues here aren't really my area of expertise.

Conte was asked several times if he thought what he did was wrong. He gave various answers, but this quote pretty much sums up his argument in a nutshell:

It's not cheating if everybody is doing it. And if you've got the knowledge that that's what everyone is doing, and those are the real rules of the game, then you're not cheating.

According to this logic, if everybody's breaking a rule, which isn't really enforced, then it isn't cheating to join in. That makes performance-enhancing drug use roughly equivalent to using oversized goalie pads in hockey.

Is Everybody Doing It?

But who is "everybody," anyway, I wonder? The woman who finished fifth in her 100 m semifinal in Athens — was she on drugs? Some people will say, who cares? But don't forget, that forgotten athlete is one of the fastest 20 women in the world. Do you need drugs to get into the top 20? The top 50? Even if you concede that all of the winners are dirty (and our national hero and doping role model Ben Johnson says it's true), how far down does this reach?

Here's an illuminating fact. The great Jesse Owens, in 1936, ran the 100m in 10.3 seconds. I think we can safely assume that Mr. Owens was not using anabolic steroids, EPO, insulin, or human growth hormone. Now, if the drug-free Jesse Owens had competed at the 2004 Olympics, on his 1936-era cinder track, in his 1936-era shoes, without starting blocks, and run a 10.3, he would have had the 31st-fastest time in the second round of competition. So surely, we can conclude, a modern athlete could run drug-free and finish better than 31st. Surely the advances in technology and training in the past 70 years would mean that an honest athlete could go even faster than 10.3 seconds.

I conclude, from this simple thought experiment, that there are clean competitors in the top 30 in the men's 100m, and probably in the top 20. And if you don't need drugs to be among the top 20 in the world, then I think Conte's rationalization of his action — and his clients' — is just so much bullshit. They didn't take drugs to level the playing field; they took drugs to win. And in my book, that's cheating. Pretty simple.

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