Lance Armstrong saved cycling and Barry Bonds saved baseball. No, not saving in the sense that their race/on-field ability mesmerized millions and brought the sport back up from a decline to American irrelevance—that much is quite obvious and not debatable. Seven Tour de France titles after beating cancer and seven MVP awards with seventy-plus home runs? These guys brought magic to their sports.
Well, sort of. PEDs were instrumental parts in what led to monumental performances in the careers of two of the most
famous athletes in sports history. Bonds and Lance are household names of even
the American who has nearly no interest in sports. They defined a
generation…and while at the time they were heroic, now they are despised and
rightfully labeled as cheats. Both have officially admitted to using banned
substances (Bonds official statement at this point was that he did so “unknowingly”)
which has led to the belief by many that their careers were lies.
There is merit to that argument, and particularly so in Lance’s case considering he admitted to doping even prior to his life-threatening cancer diagnosis. But the reason that these two players specifically are the faces of a PED-laced era in their respective sport is because they had so much talent to begin with. For example, the meteoric rise of (now stripped) Tour champion Floyd Landis was attributed to PEDs. His mediocre career was amplified tremendously at one point due to EPO and banned drugs. In baseball, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both had average ability (maybe slightly better) but until their slugfest in 1998, they were nowhere near Hall of Famers. Now, McGwire has a 70 home run season and Sosa a 600 home run career—both previously rare achievements. Only the absolute best in MLB history posted such astounding numbers and at the time, 70 was the new single season record. (In retrospect, something should have been immediately suspicious considering these feats, like Bonds’ and Lance’s were quite literally too good to be true. That just goes to show how much people love star athletes.)
Bonds was different. By 1995, he had already won multiple MVP awards, Gold Gloves, Silver Slugger Awards, as a once in a generation type combination of power and speed. Similar to LeBron James, Bonds was a “five-tool” player whose career was Hall of Fame worthy even before his steroid use in the mid-to-late 90s. Yes, he was that good. Then there’s Lance: beats testicular cancer and follows it up with not one, not two, not three…but seven consecutive Tour de France titles. This is, as Lance admitted, virtually impossible (without PEDs, of course). But, his childhood was filled with remarkable performances and his 2009 comeback ended up in a third place finish in the Tour—and for that, if we take what he told Oprah in their recent interview to be true, he was clean. Although it was masked more than Bonds, clearly a PED-free Lance Armstrong would have been elite.
In both cases, the culture of the games propagated feelings of invincibility. Thus, Bonds and Lance were not satisfied with being great. They aspired to be the greatest.
The definition of greatness was different between these athletes. Bonds was competing against history—namely his godfather, the great Willie Mays, and the home run records set by Roger Maris and Hank Aaron. Lance was competing against the odds: he beat cancer, now he wanted to prove he could be the best in the world of cycling. In his words, “win at all costs.”
These outlandish standards were what propagated reckless use of PEDs. The culture of the sports that began in the 90s was the foundation and their personal expectations led them to PEDs and a ride to the top of their sports.
For precisely these reasons, Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds saved cycling and baseball. The PEDs that were running rampant during this time period would not have been stopped if somebody didn’t reach the pinnacle of their competition. Many stories have been told about MLB players that never would have reached A ball without anabolic steroids or other PEDs. Players saw their friends ascend the ladder of professional baseball when clearly something had miraculously improved. MLB turned a blind eye, yes, but nobody would have noticed if only the mediocre or below average players were taking steroids.
It took someone at the top to shine a light on the crooked playing field these substances created.
With baseball, it is nuanced by Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco admitting to using PEDs but for the most part, two men with marginally Hall of Fame careers would not cause a true shift in testing. Why? Each generation has those types of players. Attributing such careers to steroids is almost insignificant when considered alongside the fair competitors of recent memory a la Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter. Great natural ability could compete with average ability plus steroids.
Moreover, when the culture of a sport is such that these substances are necessary to compete, it is hard to say something is unfair when nothing outrageously spectacular is occurring. When Bonds did what he did for MLB and Lance Armstrong for cycling, Santa Claus became real. Finally, people came forward and the truth unraveled. But the reality is that nobody brings presents down the chimney.
By achieving such spectacular success and ultimately admitting to cheating, these athletes helped force the organizing bodies of their sport to clean up their sport. Two star athletes proved that PEDs made a huge difference—quite literally making the impossible become possible.
Ignorance was no longer an excuse.
Now, in the post-PED era, players are monitored much more closely. The biological profile that cycling invoked in the mid-2000s has helped clean up that sport tremendously. The enhanced and more frequent testing in MLB took place at nearly exactly the same time period. And just recently, a deal was struck to add in-season HGH testing to MLB players—a major stride for any sport (HGH testing involves blood draws). Baseball has gone from highly unregulated to arguably the strictest testing in any sport.
So while it would be remiss to place the entirety of this testing revolution on Bonds and Armstrong, undoubtedly they played both pivotal and primary roles in such. 73 home runs in a season and seven consecutive Tour championships are meant for video games.
Even though these sports are paying the price now, the future of the games will be better off because of the rises and falls of two of the most famous and polarizing athletes of a generation.