PEDs and the Olympics: Gaming the Games

Performance-enhancing drugs will be part of the Summer Games. How big a part depends on whom you ask, and who gets caught.

PEDs and the Olympics: Gaming the Games

Johnson’s was the case that launched the modern era of Olympic doping scrutiny. He won gold in 1988, beating heavily favored American Carl Lewis while shattering the world record in the 100m. Then Johnson tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. He lost his medal and
his record, and was banned from competing for two years. So was Charlie Francis.

Here’s the companion to the Goldman Dilemma—call it the Francis Dilemma: use performance-enhancing substances and have a chance to win, or don’t use them and lose badly. Doping isn’t gaining an edge; it’s leveling the playing field, because the rest of the competition is juiced. If everybody’s cheating, then it’s not cheating anymore.

How does an athlete resolve the Goldman Dilemma and the “use or lose” paradox? One man tried, creating a kind of unified theory of doping. And it worked, until he got caught.


Victor Conte thought he had solved the intractable problem of doping-related imperatives  in elite sports. The founder of BALCO (the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative), Conte would ensure that athletes under his care wouldn’t be disadvantaged by performance-enhanced competitors by delivering potent, undetectable designer steroids along with companion masking agents to prevent detection in drug tests. Then he meticulously monitored blood levels and other biological markers to ensure that the athlete didn’t compromise health. He also enlisted worldclass trainers (the aforementioned Francis and legendary track coach Remi Korchemny) to ensure that this sophisticated chemical cocktail wasn’t wasted on sloppy technique.

That the BALCO system worked isn’t disputed. Conte’s athletes surpassed their wildest dreams. His most impressive triumph was taking an above average sprinter named Tim Montgomery and transforming him into a world-record holder.

Then it all came crashing down. In 2003, Conte and BALCO became embroiled in the worst doping scandal in history. He served four months in prison, and his two most famous clients, Olympic track star Marion Jones and baseball slugger Barry Bonds, landed in federal court. Bonds was convicted on one misdemeanor count (lying to a grand jury). Jones, meanwhile, lost it all. Her five medals from the Sydney 2000 Games were returned and her records expunged. She was sentenced to six months in prison for perjury and check fraud.

And that was it—as far as official justice goes. The only lasting sparks the BALCO case threw off were the ones that lit a bonfire of taxpayer money devoted to the overhyped spectacle. The BALCO investigation cost us more than $55 million, most of that devoted to embarrassing Bonds, who, by all available evidence, is immune to such emotion anyway.