The effort to keep performance-enhancing substances out of professional sport has erupted again. The United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped bicyclist Lance Armstrong of his record-shattering seven Tour de France titles. Major League Baseball suspended Melky Cabrera, an All-Star Game most valuable player, and Bartolo Colon, a former Cy Young Award winner, each for 50 games, because they used artificial testosterone.
But there's a big difference between the Armstrong case and the others. Armstrong never tested positive for banned substances. The baseball players did.
Armstrong has been suspected for years of cheating with illegal substances. But the fact remains that he never failed any of the hundreds of blood and urine tests that he underwent as part of his sport. The case against him appears to be based mostly on the testimony of other cyclists.
Armstrong is a national hero in many eyes. He popularized cycling in the United States with his Tour de France victories between 1999 and 2005. He accomplished this amazing feat after recovering from cancer, and he founded the Livestrong Foundation in 1997 that has raised nearly $500 million for cancer research, creating the familiar yellow plastic bracelet as a potent symbol of the cause.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that many of his fans refuse to believe that he cheated. Even those who have their doubts about his honesty make the point that he never failed a drug test, and that the USADA apparently has built its case on the testimony of people who could be lying. Drug tests, his defenders say, don't lie. While it's true that tests don't lie, there is an arms race between the testers and those who seek to beat them.
We can't say whether Armstrong cheated or not. What we can say is that it is important for international officials and sports governing bodies to get these cases right. Because if they don't, athletes will continue to cheat with drugs and other substances, and that will have devastating effects on millions of kids growing up in sport. If the elite athletes cheat, so will the young competitors who aspire to athletic greatness. Yet kids are not equipped to weigh the health risks of performance-enhancing substances against the chance of success and a professional contract worth millions, or even tens of millions of dollars.
Baseball, at least, seems to be making headway. After turning a blind eye for years, the big leagues have suspended five players this year and the minors have suspended 76. That's a dismal way to measure progress, but it's progress just the same.