December 27, 2004

What if all athletes took equal amounts of steroids?

Many libertarian-inclined commentators have proclaimed that rather than try to ban steroids, sports leagues should "simply" allow all athletes to take a "moderate" dose.

Of course, this is utterly impractical. It's hard enough to ban steroids, but from the perspective of surviving legal challenges from penalized athletes, it's much more effective to have a blood test rule that says one-molecule-and-you're-nailed than one that specifies X parts per gazillion ... because that opens the door to endless arguments over statistical margins of error. Further, it would just increase the amount of steroids that cheaters would take to even more dangerously high levels, with bizarre illnesses and girlfriends thrown down staircases in 'roid rages increasing concomitantly. If everybody was taking steroids in 1996, how big a dose would Ken Caminiti have taken? He probably would have survived only two years instead of eight after his steroid-fueled MVP season.

Still, a reader has some interesting observations about the effects of this hypothetical system where everybody took the same amount:

Steroids do not uniformly affect people. So the effect of universal use of equal amounts would not be no effect, as you suggest. Rather, it would be relatively helpful to people with lower levels of (natural) steroids, who would benefit relatively more from a given dose. It would be relatively hurtful to people with higher levels, who'd benefit relatively less.

This may well help white and Asian athletes compete relative to black athletes, if natural hormone levels are among the factors leading to black dominance on the athletic field. Sports allowing fixed doping levels might become whiter. A whiter sport might have many ramifications from the business POV. I'd guess that MLB would jump at it, although, clearly the racial angle will have them running scared so they'd find some other public justification.

I'd suggest that part of the attraction for some commentators to steroid use in the bigs is that it makes their fantasies of big-league play (for themselves, or their sons, perhaps) seem more reasonable, since they know themselves to be relatively low-T. Allowing the proliferation of such fantasies might well be in the interest of MLB.

Equal-but-nonzero steroids might also allow women to compete. It also may open the door to separate-but-equal thinking - that is, women might be competitive if the various sport-governing bodies allow them to use more steroids than men. (This seems farfetched on first reflection, but the more I think about it, the more logical it seems from my understanding of the leftist mindset.)

Also, one group in particular that has naturally lower levels of steroids are older men. Bonds is an example - sabermetricians find that baseball players on average peak about 28 or 29 (in terms of stat-production), yet he's still kicking ass pushing 40. Allowing equal levels of steroids would have the effect of prolonging the careers of some players, making them more competitive vis-a-vis young men who've naturally got plenty of juice but less skill. I've certainly heard the DH rule praised for its side-effect of keeping in play old and beloved (but slow) players. Juicing the game might have a similar effect - again, good for MLB even if bad for the players collectively.

Much of this already happens. For example, females get a bigger bang per buck of steroids because they have fewer natural male hormones than do males. That's why, as I pointed out in a National Review article "Track and Battlefield" in 1997, the East German sports-industrial complex was able to dope their female sprinters into beating our black lady sprinters, but they failed completely at doping their male sprinters into beating our black men.

Similarly, doping has allowed some clunky white guys to make it to the major leagues: as I pointed out in The American Conservative last spring, Jason Giambi's brother Jeremy is a good example of kind of slow white guy who couldn't make it without steroids.

Still, if everybody doped the same amount, there wouldn't be be all that much change, as we see with Bonds. Not doping (presumably), he was the best player of the 1990s. Doping, he is the best player of the 2000s.

Similarly, Florence Griffith-Joyner was the fastest clean 200m woman in the world at the 1984 Olympics and 1987 World Championships, but she finished second to suspiciously muscular women both times. So, she showed up looking like Wonder Woman in 1988 and made a joke out of the Seoul Olympics.

A lack of doping tests allowed doped women to artificially narrow the gender gap in Olympic running events from 1976 through 1988, although the difference was not huge -- about 10% to 20% of the gender gap in speed.

Also, you could also argue that the randomness of current cheating adds to the drama of modern sports: For example, a Greek man wins the 200m dash in the 2000 Olympics and his girlfriend gets the silver in the 100m dash. After four years as the toast of Greece, with millions of Greeks pointing to their performances as proof that the best blacks aren't innately faster on average, the pair try to fake a motorcycle crash to avoid the drug test at the 2004 Athens Olympics in their home country. Now, that's interesting!

Think how exciting it would be if Tiger Woods showed up on the PGA tour in January as massively muscular as Barry Bonds (attributing the change to his new bride's family recipe for Swedish meatballs) and started driving Par-5s and holing putts for double eagles. TV ratings would triple! Golf writers would make a fortune with articles about how Tiger added 200 yards to his drives by changing where the Vs in his grip point.

Anyway, this whole discussion is theoretical, because there is no feasible system for having everybody take just a little steroids. It's a joke of an idea.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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