The Varying Perceptions of PED-Users

What’s the deal with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? The public can’t make up its mind—different athletes receive different responses from fans for the same crime.

What’s the deal with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? The public can’t make up its mind—different athletes receive different responses from fans for the same crime. For instance, in professional bodybuilding, anabolic steroids, testosterone, and human-growth hormones are unofficial prerequisites for athletes to compete, so fans see no problem with it, but the cyclist Lance Armstrong, perhaps the most notorious doper, does not get a public-pass for taking Erythropoietin (EPO) despite the fact that “it was completely and totally pervasive” among cyclists in the ’90s, as Armstrong stated. Armstrong lost all of his accolades and sponsorships and was universally castigated by the sports world. Yet, Barry Bonds’s accomplishments are still accepted, and he’s officially recognized by Major League Baseball (MLB) as baseball’s home run king, despite many of them coming from when he was “on the juice.” National Basketball Association (NBA) players get caught for PEDs every year, but none of them have lost their careers to the extent that former Olympic track stars Ben Johnson and Marion Jones have. So, what’s going on? Why do some athletes get a pass while others do not?

Context always matters. Middleweight Champion Canelo Alvarez and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Yoel Romero get passes for failing drug tests because they have legitimate excuses: tainted supplements and foods. As a result, commissions are more lenient towards fighters who make honest mistakes, and the majority of fans are willing to accept that. So it must be the intent that matters, right? Yes and no. As much as fans like to judge their favorite athletes on the merit of their character, morality is second to winning. According to ESPN analyst Max Kellerman, “The history of baseball shows, it’s not about the cheating, it’s about the efficacy of the cheating.” Barry Bonds had a Hall of Fame career before he started juicing, and so in fans’ eyes, PEDs had little effect on his status as an all-time great. Mark McGwuire’s career, on the other hand, was built and sustained on the juice, and thus, he gets no love from baseball fans. At second glance, Kellerman’s philosophy applies to sports in general. McGwuire’s career hasn’t been destroyed to the extent that Jones’s, Johnson’s, or Armstrong’s have. Runners, cyclists, and swimmers that get caught doping don’t receive the same luck from commissions and fans, and we can attest to the perceived efficacy of their cheating.

The individual nature of sports like track and field, swimming, or cycling makes it harder for their respective athletes to get away with any cheating scott free. The perceived efficacy of an individual athlete’s prohibited drug use is greater in an individual sport than in a team sport because the athlete has greater influence over the game’s circumstances in an individual sport. An individual athlete cheating in an individual sport could be likened to a whole team cheating in a team sport—just ask the Houston Astros, whose infamous sign stealing campaign, in which many coaches and players participated, won them MLB World Series Title, how that went. Though the Houston Astros were not stripped of their illicit 2017 title, the fans and league players alike have not forgotten the Astros’ crimes. In comparison to an individual, the Astros’ case is like Sun Yang, an Olympic gold-medalist and star Chinese swimmer, who received an eight-year suspension in 2020 from The Court of Arbitration for Sport for tampering with drug tests. At the time of suspension, he was 29 years old, effectively ending his professional swimming career. Because the individual athlete taking such PEDs provides such a tremendous effect on the individual competing party, the individual athlete takes a harder fall than if he played on a team.

Sports like track and field, swimming, or cycling are “pure-athleticism” sports—they’re less technique and strategy-based and more focused on raw speed, strength, power, and endurance. Of course any swimmer, runner, or cyclist will tell you that there’s a great deal of technique, precision, and strategy to their sports. For example, sprinters must have swing their arms at a specific angle, distance runners must strategize their position among the pack, swimmers must meticulously count their strokes per lap, and cyclists need to maintain proper cadence throughout races. However, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that there are fewer strategic components—at least conspicuous components—in those sports compared to team-sports like soccer or football. As a result, an athlete’s performance in track and field or swimming is more heavily dependent on one's physical capabilities; Usain Bolt’s Olympic achievements are predicated not on his technique but rather his elite genetics, the basis on which his refined technique and physical training rest. Because “pure-athleticism” sport athletes are so dependent on natural athleticism, altering one’s physical makeup and limitations through PEDs in those sports can be seen as heavily meddling with the balance of competition. The perceived efficacy of their cheating is high, so fans are more outraged when they hear when someone like Armstrong is caught.

It also doesn’t help that sports like cycling, track and field, and swimming aren’t widely viewed, so the general public does not have a fond appreciation of those athletes. Any athlete that knowingly uses PEDs to get ahead is in the wrong, but as sports fans we’re too focused on wins, gold medals, championships, and first-place finishes. Perhaps if Armstrong were doing EPOs on a soccer pitch, he’d still have a public career, or if Johnson took steroids while on the gridiron, not the track, he’d still be relevant, or if Jones just kept steroids for her basketball career, she’d save herself from public ostracism. But as we know, efficacy, not ethics, plays a role in our perception of these PED cheaters.

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