April 3, 2013
PEDs use: rampant among fighters?
I can remember Bobby Czyz, who was moonlighting as a color commentator at the time, holding forth at great length on the subject of steroids during a production meeting for a 1996 fight card televised by the Fox Network. He seemed to know an awful lot about them at a time when performing-enhancing drugs (PEDs) were seldom discussed in boxing circles. Czyz, who was scheduled to fight Evander Holyfield in a few months and suspected Evander was juicing, joked that he wouldn’t be surprised if Holyfield’s head exploded before he had a chance to knock it off. Everybody else laughed and looked sheepish.Holyfield had been rumored to be a PED user, and years later his name was linked to an investigation of illegal steroid distribution networks, although nothing was ever proved. But that wasn’t the reason steroids were the hot topic that weekend. South African heavyweight Frans Botha had tested positive following a split decision over Axel Schultz the previous December. The result was changed to a no-contest, and the IBF’s announcement as to whether it would strip Botha and vacate the title was imminent. Fox needed to know the outcome before the show started, and I was tasked with the unenviable job of pestering then-IBF president Bob Lee until I got an answer. As it turned out, the IBF did strip Botha and vacate the title, and I managed to deliver the news in time for the broadcast. For me, however, the fights were secondary. The big takeaway that weekend was the unsettling realization that boxing had entered a new age: the PEDs era. Almost two decades later, PEDs are dominating boxing’s news cycle with uncomfortable frequency, and despite increased testing, a growing number of busts, steeper penalties and a disapproving public, more and more fighters are apparently using them. “I think that PEDs use is rampant among fighters,” said Dr. Margaret Goodman, neurologist, former ringside physician and president and chairwoman of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA). “We are only finding the tip of the iceberg due to archaic profiles and announced testing. I can’t give a percent, but it is high. It has become an easy quick fix for many — especially as athletes know they are rarely checked. And when they are checked, the ones caught are typically those that didn’t stop the substance in time or received poor advice on use.” Just as internet hackers always manage to find a way around the most advanced computer-security technology, PEDs gurus will find ways to beat new detection methods, including unannounced random testing. In the long run, testing is like a dog chasing its own tail: Round and round you go, getting nowhere fast. Although it’s true that some commissions do not test at all for PEDs and many that do test for them use inadequate procedures, fighters keep turning up dirty anyway. Consequently, there is a clamor for more and better testing. More suspensions. Higher fines. More lifetime bans. In other words, a fight to the finish, with the outcome and benefit to boxing being problematical at best. Is this really the only solution? Historically, prohibition hasn’t worked, regardless of the substance being prohibited. It didn’t work with alcohol, it didn’t work with drugs, and in all likelihood it won’t work with PEDs. If you think new and improved testing is the answer, I believe you’re fooling yourself. Just as Internet hackers always manage to find a way around the most advanced computer-security technology, PEDs gurus will find ways to beat new detection methods, including unannounced random testing. Look at how many years Lance Armstrong beat random testing. In the long run, testing is like a dog chasing its own tail: Round and round you go, getting nowhere fast. The current testing model also can be inconclusive, as the recent boondoggle involving the Lamont Peterson-Kendall Holt fight plainly demonstrated. At first there was an erroneous report that Peterson — who had been busted for having traces of synthetic testosterone in his system during his December 2011 victory over Amir Khan — had again been again caught using a banned substance. As it turned out, neither Peterson nor Holt had failed his drug test. According to the Washington D.C. commission, one of the boxers — presumably Holt — provided an atypical test result, meaning that the amount of the banned substance (in this case HCG, a fertility drug that increases testosterone and facilitates weight loss) wasn’t sufficient enough to give the boxer a significant advantage. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the entire dilemma. The health issue is a good place to start. As it stands, the vast majority of fighters will suffer some degree of brain damage regardless of whether their opponents used PEDs. Boxers have endured the consequences of absorbing repeated blows to the head since the birth of bare-knuckle prizefighting in the latter half of the 18th century. Since that time, numerous rules changes have been adopted in an effort to make boxing safer. It has been an ongoing process that continues to evolve, but the sport still takes a terrible toll on its participants nonetheless. Actual ring fatalities are comparatively rare (usually fewer than a dozen a year), but the number of boxers who, later in life, suffer concussion-related degenerative disorders of the central nervous system is staggering. “I think that PEDs use significantly contributes to the increased risks of brain injury in fighters,” Dr. Goodman said. “I am hoping this will be proven one day — soon.”