Sports

SPILLING THE JUICE

If the pros don't police steroids, vows Canada’s sports minister, government will

CHARLIE GILLIS March 28 2005
Sports

SPILLING THE JUICE

If the pros don't police steroids, vows Canada’s sports minister, government will

CHARLIE GILLIS March 28 2005

SPILLING THE JUICE

Sports

CHARLIE GILLIS

If the pros don't police steroids, vows Canada’s sports minister, government will

AS WITNESSES GO, Jose Canseco leaves much to be desired. He’s patently self-serving. He’s smug, he’s vacuous, he’s unrepentant and his tales of rampant steroid abuse in pro baseball tend to wander into nose-stretcher territory, as when he recalled a conversation he allegedly had in spring training of 2001 while playing for the Anaheim Angels. Canseco claims in his recently published book that, after hitting a double in a game against Seattle, he began chatting up Mariners’ second baseman Bret Boone, asking whether

Boone had received chemical help to bulk up over the winter. “Shhh,” his opponent supposedly responded. “Don’t tell anybody.” Canseco, it turns out, never made it to second base in five games against the Mariners that spring—which says as much about his career trajectory at the time as it does about his credibility. But for all his faults, Canseco has accomplished what antidoping advocates couldn’t despite years of trying: lifting steroid abuse from a crisis in amateur athletics into a genuine scandal in professional sports. If even half his allegations are true, performance-enhancing drugs were so commonplace in Major League Baseball in the 1990s that everyone from superstars to league commissioner Bud Selig now have a lot to answer for—especially given the growing body of evidence (then, as now) that steroids pose enormous health risks.

For a change, we’re starting to get those explanations. While last week’s hearings into doping by a U.S. congressional committee were nakedly political, they marked the first time league executives and players have been questioned publicly, under oath, about the scourge. The answers were evasive, but the spectacle was illuminating: a who’s who of baseball, from Selig to home-run idol Sammy Sosa, summoned like naughty school boys to a headmaster’s office; the once-mighty Mark McGwire, shrunken in size and public stature, weepily refusing to answer questions; Canseco blithely enduring the wrath of his colleagues while sermonizing on the evils of drugs that helped make him rich. Only in America, right?

Actually, no. As Canseco et al. fumbled through their Q&A in Washington, Canadian Minister of State for Sport Stephen Owen was telling Maclean’s that he, too, has had enough of the pro leagues’ prevaricating. Canada, he noted, will sign a UNESCO convention next fall committing it to fighting doping in all sports. Now the clock is ticking. If the pro leagues operating in this country fail to implement meaningful doping controls after Canada signs, he says, the government will be in a position to legislate. “We’ve got a major interest, a public responsibility, to make sure this thing is dealt with,” he adds. Owen says he would support holding U.S.Style hearings here if necessary, using the parliamentary health committee or a special panel struck for the occasion. “I’d certainly be pleased,” he says, “to lead it.”

If Owen sounds gung-ho, it’s because professional sports leagues in this country have been flying under the doping radar for years— despite our national bloodletting over steroids following Ben Johnson’s exposure as a cheat at the 1988 Summer Games. When Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer John Kordic died of a cocaine overdose in a Quebec City motel in 1992, steroids were found in his bloodstream. Yet the NHL president of the day, Gil Stein, denied the need for leaguewide testing, arguing steroid use was not widespread in hockey.

The current commissioner, Gary Bettman, echoed that thought as recently as last December, saying steroids were “inconsistent with what your body has to do to be a successful hockey player.” But there are signs that the league is finally snapping its head around on the desirability of testing. An anti-doping policy is part of the current round of bargaining between the NHL and the players’ union, and will be included in a deal when (and if) one is announced. In an email to Maclean’s, vice-president Bill Daly said the league is seeking a random testing regimen with immediate penalty for a first offence, and escalating sanctions for repeat offences. For now, he added, the issue counts among the least contentious between the bitterly divided sides. “We’ve had preliminary discussions on the subject,” he said, “and we don’t anticipate too much difficulty in negotiating a mutually satisfactory [antidoping] program.”

As it stands, the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in hockey remains something of a mystery. Random testing performed before the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City produced no scandals involving NHL stars. And the league quietly did tests on players before and during last summer’s World Cup of Hockey—with no adverse results. It’s true that testing at such elite tournaments is unlikely to turn up the Kordic-style enforcers, who are desperate to build muscle mass, or recover from injuries. “But I’m pretty optimistic about hockey,” says Christiane Ayotte, head of the INRS Institut Armand-Frappier laboratory in PointeClaire, Que., and one of the world’s leading anti-doping advocates. “They’ve been doing some testing that nobody asked them to.”

Football is another matter. By common estimate, as many as one-in-five players in the CFL has used, or is using, performanceenhancing drugs. And there are enough steroid anecdotes to silence the most stubborn deniers of a systemic problem. John Mandarich, a defensive lineman with the 1990 Ottawa Rough Riders, admitted using the drugs before he died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 31. Allen Pitts, a star receiver with the Calgary Stampeders, was nabbed in 1995 at the U.S.-Canada border in Montana with 25 containers of steroids in his car (he took the drugs, he said, to recover from injury). Two years ago, Mike Mihelic, a 29-year-old offensive lineman with the Hamilton TigerCats, was charged after police seized 120,000 steroid pills and hundreds of bottles of injectable steroid liquid from homes in Mississauga and Milton, Ont.

Until recently, the league had shrugged off these incidents, claiming the cost of a testing regime was prohibitive. But spokeswoman Alexis Redmond says the league is now drafting a policy it hopes to take to its players’ union soon. “I can’t give you a timeline,” she adds. But it has to be something the clubs and the players take seriously, “and it’s important that the public sees we feel that way.”

A CFL turnabout would come as good news to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), which had been pressuring the league for at least two years to enact something—anything—in the way of an anti-doping program. “The behaviours and values modelled in professional sport trickle down,” says Paul Melia, the organization’s chief executive. “They have a dramatic impact at the community level.” Complaints about cost had never washed with Melia: with doping control officers across the country ready to work for a modest honorarium, plus a wealth of educational material available from the CCES, he pegs the yearly cost to the CFL of an effective, random-test program at less than $10,000.

Critics, of course, will complain that the money at stake in pro sports practically guarantees cheaters will continue to defy any doping control program. They’re right: last year’s BALCO Laboratories scandal suggests there will be new drugs, with new distributors and new clients willing to pay up for a perceived edge. But if Jose Canseco offers anything to professional sports, it’s the guarantee that no one will dope with such impunity again—then cash in on his malfeasance. It’s the one aspect of his story you can count on. Iffl

BY MOST estimates, as many as one-in-five CFL players has used, or is using, performanceenhancing drugs

charlie.gillis@macleans.rogers.com