Lance Armstrong has finally acknowledged what so many suspected for so long. After countless adamant denials, he admitted to doping and to using performance-enhancing substances (PES) during the span of his cycling career in an interview with Oprah Winfrey this week. He has already been stripped of all of his Tour De France wins and surely there will be asterisks on any records he might achieve going forward, if he ever earns the privilege of competing professionally again.
Armstrong’s fall from grace is the latest tale of an extremely gifted athlete who accomplished so much, only to lose it all to bad decisions and deception driven by illicit drug use.
This is not the first time we’ve heard this tale. Despite incomparable feats on the baseball field, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are among the roster of front-page professional and Olympic athletes whose reputations have been tarnished by links to steroids, HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs. It goes without saying that the cloud of steroids and PES is part of the reason why no one got elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Despite the fact that using PES is an extremely dangerous behavior that can have long-term and severe health risks, including increased risk of cancer, heart and liver disease, aggressive behavior, paranoia and bad judgment from feelings of invincibility – far too many teens and professional athletes make the short-sighted choice to trade their health for the chance at athletic glory. And their role models in sport have too frequently let teens down by setting the wrong example.
We know from our own annual national research that 5 percent of teens report using steroids or human growth hormone (HGH) at least once in their lifetime, and more than one in five of teens (22 percent) know someone who uses steroids without a prescription. Almost one quarter of teens (23 percent) agree that “knowing that some successful athletes use performance-enhancing substances makes me more likely to consider using them.” These data point out that parents and coaches of student athletes alike need to stress the health risks of steroids and PES to their kids.
Over the past decade The Partnership has worked closely with a dedicated team at Major League Baseball (MLB) headquarters to help educate coaches, parents and teens on this extremely dangerous behavior. During that time, I’ve spoken with young athletes who feel compelled to use steroids, performance-enhancing substances, supplements and energy drinks to get that competitive edge, especially if they believe there is a potential to pursue a career in professional sports.
What do I tell them? I come at it from two perspectives. As president of a nonprofit in public health, I underscore that PES use can have a documented and serious negative health impact that can last a lifetime – that there is simply no safe way to use them. Secondly, as someone with children in my life and who can still recall the pressures on high school athletes as far back as the 1970s, I tell them that sport is based in fairness and clean competition. Breaking rules and laws around PES use and risking one’s health amounts to nothing more than cheating. And cheating just isn’t fair and eventually comes home to roost. Just look at Lance Armstrong.
That’s why among the myriad of projects and issues we address at The Partnership, our ongoing work with MLB and student athletes across America on reducing steroid and PES use is among the most gratifying. Certainly that comes from the tens of thousands of young lives we’ve helped and changed for the better, the hundreds of thousands of student athletes we’ve reached and the millions of families we’ve alerted to the health risks of steroid and PES use. It also comes in the recent news that MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed to the strictest testing program in major professional sports including testing for human growth hormone (HGH). Their leadership reinforces a strong message that this behavior is unhealthy, unfair and will not be tolerated. I only hope the NFL players and other sports can finally step up and take action that includes testing for HGH.
Steroids, HGH and other PES remain readily available to young people across the country through illicit channels. Now that we know more of the truth about what powered Lance Armstrong’s victories, and the deception PES use can drive, it must serve as an important “teachable moment” – a unique opportunity for parents to sit down with their teens and have an open, honest dialogue stressing the health dangers of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. No matter how tempting or easy it may seem to cheat and try to gain an advantage, sooner or later, drugs destroy dreams.
—Steve Pasierb, President of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids
Follow me on Twitter @StevePasierb