If you're an adult sports fan, you probably have a negative perception of the East German sports ma chine that dominated the Olympics a generation ago. You see them as cheaters, Communist pawns who were fed drugs that gave them an unfair advantage over their clean U.S. counterparts. Now, what's your reaction when you hear that one of the favorite substances of the East Germans was Androstenedione -- the same testosterone-producing supplement that Mark McGwire is using to sustain him over the long baseball season? Do you look less harshly on the East Germans? Do you view McGwire's pursuit of Roger Maris' home run re cord with a more dubious eye? I suspect a lot of fans would prefer to see the issue go away, so they can resume their enjoy ment of the home run chase be tween McGwire and Sammy So sa. It has been a shared summer spectacle, a reason for people to follow baseball again and forget the game's recent indiscretions.
People are desperate for an unspoiled hero, someone who doesn't beat his wife or smoke pot or disdain autograph seekers, whose achievements haven't been diminished in some way. But just as McGwire passed 50 homers and set his sights on 62, he admitted using "Andro," a perfor mance-enhancing substance banned by the NFL, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. People have been weighing in with rationalizations ever since: It's not illegal in baseball. He was hitting home runs before he began using it. Most athletes these days are using muscle-builders, such as Creatine. It's true that the use of muscle-building supple ments has exploded in recent years. Anecdotal evi dence suggests half of all major league baseball play ers use Creatine. Sosa uses it. But "Andro" is a dif ferent story. If it's an innocent substance, why did the IOC, NFL and NCAA all see fit to ban it? "Andro" hasn't been listed as a steroid. There are no definitive studies on its side effects. But experts, including the NFL's adviser on steroids, say it signifi cantly raises testosterone levels, enabling athletes to train harder and recover quicker. It acts like a ste roid. Therefore, it should be considered a steroid. It's easy to hide behind legalities, as McGwire is doing. But the real issue isn't whether "Andro" is le gal. It's whether it gives him an unfair advantage. What if baseball catches up with the other sports and bans "Andro" a few years from now? Will fans give McGwire the benefit of the doubt, since he set the record beforehand? Will they say it was OK to maintain his body by artificial means, because the substance happened to be legal at the time? How do you think shot putter Randy Barnes feels? Barnes, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, was banned for life for using "Andro." I don't recall any public outcry. Is it because Americans don't care about track and field and no one profits from his records? The home run race has been a daily advertisement for the sport. Home runs sell. If certain substances allow hitters to build muscles and recover from inju ries, it's good business to look the other way. There are many reasons for the surge in home runs. The parks are smaller. Pitching talent is thin. But the biggest reason is muscles. The arms on some of these hitters are amazing. Players in those old photos, with their skinny arms sticking out of their uniforms, look like stick figures by comparison. Athletes are more savvy about their bodies these days. They know about nutrition. They lift weights. They know the value of vitamins, proteins and other supplements. Most of them take something. So it's increasingly difficult to monitor dangerous substances like steroids. It's hard to take the high ground. Who can say that what McGwire is taking is any worse than what Ben Johnson took at the 1988 Olympics? Fans need to believe in the pure athlete. They're understandably ambivalent. Soon, they'll be reluctant to embrace any record, for fear that some damning news will emerge and tear their hero down. Maybe it's time to concede that we can't legislate purity in sports. There is no consistent and reliable mechanism for making certain athletes are clean. So why not say "Anything goes"? Make all substances le gal. Level the playing field for everybody. Otherwise, we'll soon reach the point where every record has to be accompanied by an asterisk. Or in McGwire's case, an asteroid.