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Kobritz: Can we rid sports of performance enhancing drugs?

Beyond the Lines

On Sept. 3, 2003, federal agents raided BALCO, the San Francisco Bay Area Laboratory that provided performance enhancing drugs to several athletes.

High profile athletes such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones and dozens of others were ensnared in the two-year investigation that uncovered the sordid underbelly of doping in sports. The investigation led to indictments, trials, the Mitchell Report in MLB and drug testing in virtually every sport. But despite efforts to rid PEDs from the sports landscape, they still exist.

Fifteen years later, USA TODAY asked several central figures in the BALCO case how they would crack down on cheaters. Their consensus was these five steps would further reduce cheating: toughen the penalties, close testing loopholes, expect more from WADA, increase testing in Eastern Europe and change the sports culture.

“If you put together a program where the risk clearly outweighs the reward, you’re going to have significant impact on compliance,’’ said Jeff Novitzky, who led the government raid on BALCO. “You’re not going to completely eradicate it, but the impact’s going to be significant.” Novitzky’s last remark is telling. No penalty will completely eradicate PEDs because even a lifetime ban will not deter someone who is willing to risk everything.

While testing exists in most sports, almost every anti-doping program has a major flaw: The absence of 24-hour, unannounced drug testing, 365 days a year. One exception is UCF, where Novitzky oversees the drug testing program. Anything less, according to Victor Conte, the mastermind behind BALCO, allows athletes to “duck and dodge” to avoid being tested. In addition, according to Conte athletes can engage in a practice known as “micro-doping,” the use of banned drugs in amounts small enough and at the right times to escape detection.

Expecting more from WADA is a fool’s errand. Created in 1999 by the International Olympic Committee to oversee the fight against drugs in sports, the World Anti-Doping Agency is a bureaucratic, politicized, incompetent organization that in the past has banned both caffeine and oxygen as PEDs. Their 2018 budget of $32 million is a complete and utter waste of money.

Increased testing in Eastern Europe would significantly reduce doping on the world stage. However, it takes two to tango. Without the permission of Eastern Bloc countries for increased testing and enforcement, such efforts are a non-starter. The experiences involving Russia in the past two Olympic Games is exhibit A of why relying on those countries is a triumph of hope over experience.

Changing the current sports culture – athletes willing to look for any edge because fame and financial reward go to the winner and anything less than winning is considered failure – is naïve. It’s akin to the culture encouraged in youth sports where participation alone is the reward. In the real world, fame and fortune will continue to trump participation.

Can drugs be eradicated from sports? While there are optimists in our midst, such a world exists solely in theory. It is no more a reality than the sun rising in the west.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.