George Bush’s remarks in the January 2004 State of the Union Message that called for the elimination of performance enhancing drugs, such as steroids, from sport came out of the blue. In that speech, Bush stated that, “Team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids now.”
Soon after Bush’s speech, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced indictments against the Burlingame-based Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), a firm that has sold banned performance-enhancing drugs to athletes and trainers. BALCO is only one of several conduits for obtaining performance-enhancing drugs.
Furthermore, Republican John McCain, who serves as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, provided the United States Anti-Doping Agency with Department of Justice documents related to its criminal investigation against BALCO. Most of the athletes under scrutiny have been world class Track and Field athletes. In addition, athletes from Major League Baseball and the National Football League have also been tied to BALCO, including the Giants’ Barry Bonds.
Up to this point, only five Track and Field athletes have been banned for using performance-enhancing drugs. At least eight other Track and Field stars, including five-time Olympic medalist Marion Jones, are still being investigated. Track and Field athletes are vulnerable to this investigation because that sport, compared to baseball and football, is minor and not as organized.
The use of performance enhancing substances is something that no one can support; the harmful (and deadly) effects of those drugs are too obvious. But why would the Bush administration single out drug use in sport in light of the fact that there are so many social, economic, and environmental issues that are more urgent? More significantly, can Bush actually be believed that he opposes “deceit” and “opportunism” in sport?
In the State of the Union Message Bush claimed that, “Drug(s), like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous.” He also stated, “It (drug use) sends the wrong message-that there are short cuts to accomplishments and that performance is more than character.”
Senator McCain also stated that he would like the United States to send a “clean” (drug free) team to Athens for this summer’s Olympic Games. The intent is to prevent the United States from not being embarrassed before the world community if any athletes test positive for drug use. McCain stated, “It will harm our image and will contribute to the image, whether deserved or undeserved, that the United States is a bully and unethical.”
The Republicans’ motivation on this issue is suspect, however. The Bush administration’s record on the well being of people is criminal. Examples of this are Bush’s use of depleted uranium in Iraq, his sanctioning of prisoners being tortured in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, and the ill treatment of soldiers returning from Iraq sick and/or traumatized. As for Bush’s opposition to drug use, his war in Afghanistan has allowed the resumption of heroin production there, and the selling of that substance throughout Western Europe and elsewhere. Furthermore, where are Bush’s “values” in light of the lying and deceit he used to ramrod the United States into an illegal war in Iraq? Of course, all of these examples are only the tip of an iceberg.
President-select Bush’s motives related to drug use in sport are more base. The issue is being used as an electoral campaign ploy. He is attempting to co-opt an issue from the Democrats, which has both moral and detrimental health related implications to gain votes. The rationale is that no one supports drug use in sports; therefore, Bush could possibly win favor from voters on this issue.
That strategy has multiple layers. One, many suburban parents are increasingly worried about performance enhancing drugs being used by their children, not only at the university level, but also on the high school level, and even in middle schools; a problem that is proliferating.
Second, the fact that most athletes targeted in the various investigations are African-American could play into Republican hands as well. This point is made because the “mug shots” of accused athletes seen in the morning newspapers almost daily are mostly of blacks. This strategy is further capsulated by the brewing resentment working class whites have towards extremely well paid professional athletes, many of whom are also African-American. Thus the drugs in sport issue is another variant of the “race card” that the Republicans have effectively used since the 1968 Presidential election.
Bush’s election campaign is banking on winning his so-called political base and expanding support by endorsing conservative/Right wing social issues, while trying to manipulate and/or take attention away from negative news about the Iraq War and the realities of the domestic economy. His electoral base is easily seduced by this manipulation, while the ten per cent of voters that are still undecided are considered up for grabs. The drug in sport issue may influence some undecided voters. And, as we learned in 2000, a handful of votes can make a big difference in a Presidential election.
Bush’s drug issue has another purpose as well. It is served up as another “distraction” aimed to keep the public from focusing on domestic and international problems. Therefore, while public policy has been pushed further and further to the Right over the past decade and war-making has recently become the centerpiece of United States foreign policy, the public has been dished up “OJ,” “Monica Lewinsky,” “Gary Condit,” and “Laci Peterson” as distractions. Now add “BALCO” to that list.
As for the United States’ international image being “harmed” at the Athens Olympic Games because of any disclosure of drug use, that has already occurred, perhaps irreparably, because of Bush’s aggression in Iraq.
Whether Bush’s electoral ploy has any impact on his return to the White House in November, we will have to wait and see. But one thing is certain, drug use in sport will only be reduced when society honestly addresses its obsession with “winning.”
George Wright is a retired Professor of International Politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.