The cost of being the best you can be

The recent suspension of the football program at the University of Waterloo raises questions, once again, about why athletes at every level continue to use performance-enhancing drugs. (See cover story).

The entire Waterloo football team underwent drug testing, a rare occurrence in CIS sports, and was pulled from the upcoming season after nine of the players were found using steroids. Should we really be surprised this happened? All competitive sports immerse athletes in a culture where they are pressured to be at their best all the time, whatever the cost.

The recent NHL playoffs provide an excellent parallel. Players hurl themselves blindly to stop speeding pucks, ultimately sacrificing their bodies in the hopes of hoisting a coveted trophy and being recognized as a standout star, or at least a valuable player. The best received unending praise from teammates, coaches and broadcasters alike.

There is an expectation that athletes be all they can be to measure up to the rest of their team and their opponents. The desire and pressure to be competitive and win at any cost is why players turn to doping. The excuse “everyone else is doing it” never gets old.

Despite a culture of being the best by any means necessary, the arbitrary finger of chastisement is ever-wagging. Granted, this finger wagging is substantiated by well-documented medical evidence linking performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic androgenic steroids to strokes, heart attacks and even shrunken gonads. The athletes who dope think the side effects are worth it– they are capable of weighing the pros and cons of drug use, and choose to use drugs. In most cases performance enhancers do exactly as their name suggests, with side effects as minor as increased acne or chest hair.

When a relatively low chance of getting caught is thrown into the mix, there is even more incentive for players to turn to drugs to increase performance. Players are capable of cycling their use of steroids so that they’re not caught during a period of predictable testing, like after a championship. If more testing is conducted unpredictably, that may deter an athlete from risking his career. However the cost of testing must also be taken into consideration. Heavily regulated testing is inherently costly. For universities to push for athletic excellence– often more so than academic excellence– means they must also take some of the responsibility.

Doping remains a slap in the face to those who work hard to make themselves competitive athletes. In Waterloo’s case an entire team was sidelined, though many were not using drugs to enhance their performance.

Sports have created a hypocritical culture. Athletes are pressured to be competitive and sacrifice themselves to win. It should come as no shock that athletes are willing to do anything and everything to achieve that goal, especially if and when the perceived odds of being caught are slim. For some, the benefits outweigh the costs.

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