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Friday, July 28, 2006

In This Steroids Era, Every Feat Is Suspect

July 28, 2006
Sports of The Times

JUST when fans allow themselves to feel warm and fuzzy about an apparent heroic sports performance, we get punched in our collective stomachs by yet another steroid scandal.

Increasingly, everything we think we see — and assume is fair — is little more than a sports mirage: the home-run hitter, the world-class sprinter, now the championship cyclist.

On Sunday, the world cheered as 30-year-old Floyd Landis won the Tour de France in an exhilarating exhibition of strength, speed, ingenuity and heart.

Now we learn from Landis’s Phonak team that Landis tested positive for high levels of the male sex hormone and anabolic steroid testosterone. In a statement, the team said that it was notified on Wednesday by the International Cycling Union of an abnormal level of testosterone to epitestosterone in the test of Landis after Stage 17. From celebrated to disgraced. If a test on a subsequent sample confirms the result, Landis could be stripped of his victory, becoming the first Tour winner to be disqualified for doping.

Gary I. Wadler, an associate professor of medicine at New York University and an expert on steroids, said he had three reactions to the news.

“One, testosterone is not one of the drugs that comes to mind when you think Tour de France,” Wadler said yesterday from his office in Manhasset, N.Y. “The second is that this is another black mark on cycling. Third, I’m surprised that the information became public; there still is a process that must be followed.”

Cycling, for most of us, is a sport we watch once a year and is associated with Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner. When Landis won, the news media gushed. He had won the 17th stage by nearly six minutes. One writer compared Landis’s performance to Armstrong’s domination, but said it was more dramatic. The Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, called the stage victory the best he had ever seen. He compared Landis’s ride to that of the Belgian racer Eddy Merckx in 1969, when he won the Tourmalet climb in the Pyrenees by eight minutes.

Now I find myself wondering whether Merckx was on drugs, too. That’s blasphemous, I know. But this is the climate created by the steroids era in sports. Every performance is suspect.

“Unfortunately, I have a healthy degree of cynicism,” Wadler said. “If it seems unbelievable, in this doping business it just may be.”

Why should anyone be surprised by cycling’s latest scandal? Four of the top five finishers from last year’s Tour de France were removed for suspected doping before the 2006 race even began. So why are we surprised about Landis?

•The larger question — the question racing officials had better begin asking — is this: Why has cycling created a culture where drug use is not a luxury, but has become a veritable lifeline?

“It forces you to consistently go beyond your physiologic capacity,” Wadler said. “Cycling is physiologically demanding; it pushes you to limits that are unimaginable. You can anticipate pushing yourself to that extreme, day in, day out: time trials, climbing mountains. It’s almost beyond comprehension.”

Cycling had better do some introspection — not simply about drugs and cheating, but about the very nature of the sport. Wadler recited a history of deaths in international competition that he believes are connected to a historic dependency on drugs.

During the Rome Olympics in 1960, the Danish cyclist Knut Jensen died. In 1967, the British cyclist Tommy Simpson died during the Tour. In 1968, Yves Mottin died two days after winning a race. All were linked to amphetamines. Wadler thinks that in each case, drugs designed to get an edge in this grueling sport were the culprit. “The most fit people in the country in their 20’s died,” Wadler said. “I can’t prove it. Certainly it’s suspect.”

Purists will protest: what’s this sport to do? Cycling must consider altering the Tour de France to lessen the demand, indeed the need, for cheating.

Although Lance Armstrong never tested positive, in the wake of Landis’s performance and the earlier drug disclosures, we’re left to wonder whether Armstrong was a superhero or just a cheat who never got caught.

Wadler refused to speculate. “In this business, what I know is what counts, not what I think,” he said. “I can think of nothing worse than super-elite athletes who play by the rules, who break all the records, have everyone point the finger and say you cheated when you didn’t. I can think of nothing worse than that.

“This is a sad day for sports,” Wadler added. “It’s come to this: Every extraordinary performance is called into question. That is not how we perceive sports.”

•For a generation of young people, this is precisely how sports are perceived — and not with a lot of hand-wringing. Elite athletes run on fuel.

The danger with this sort of matter-of-fact approach to performance-enhancing drugs is that young athletes never realize that steroids are a silent spike, that steroids can kill.

“We can’t afford to succumb to doping fatigue,” Wadler said. “This is a battle that will go on and on and on.”

Cycling had better look itself in the mirror and make some fundamental adjustments. And it better do it before somebody else dies.

These drugs are the mountain that apparently cannot be scaled.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com