Growing up with tainted heroes

In a million TV-channel world, with cameras everywhere, the fallibility of athletes is more obvious. But it's the drugs that hurt the most, the HGH and EPO and TGH and testosterone that reveal counterfeit heroes and puncture BOYISH DREAMS. As kids pull posters of cheats off their walls are they learning to be cynical before their time?, wonders ROHIT BRIJNATH.

If you are eight, or 10, or 14, caught in that once-wonderful phase of growing up called the age of worship, then you have my sympathy.

No age is possibly as beautiful as this time of believing, when scotch-tape is measured out, mothers' commandments about clean walls dismissed, and the first heroes are pasted onto plaster.

How we stepped back, and looked at our heroes, and grinned, wearing a reverence so clean, so pure, it was almost holy. Of all rituals of that time, this was the most innocent in a way, for we believed, emphatically, completely, in the goodness and greatness of another man. Perfection in a poster.

In those non-Internet, non-cable TV days when information limped along, and journalists didn't pry, and athletes were more discreet, and temptations of fame were fewer, we were rarely introduced to the fallibilities of our heroes, we rarely heard about their indiscretions, we were infrequently disappointed. If heroes fumbled, there was always an excuse.

But how do you make excuses now? How many justifications can kids find? How does worship remain pure when so many heroes are not?

As generations go, this one has it hard. Footballers con referees. Racism lurks. Drunken nightclub incidents involving athletes abound. Assaults are not uncommon. Disrespect is everyone's birthright. A lot of it happened before, but now, in a million TV-channel world, with cameras everywhere, the fallibility of athletes is more obvious.

But it's the drugs that hurt the most, the HGH and EPO and TGH and testosterone that reveal counterfeit heroes and puncture boyish dreams. As kids pull posters of cheats off their walls are they learning to be cynical before their time?

You wonder in a week when the winner of the most celebrated race in sport (Justin Gatlin, 100 metres Olympic gold medallist), and the fairytale champion of the toughest event in sport (Floyd Landis, Tour de France winner), turn up positive tests, are kids surprised, or do they just shrug?

But maybe it's worse than that. Maybe kids are just being inured to drugs. You wonder sometimes that if so many athletes take drugs, so many Olympic gold medallists, Tour de France winners, tennis players, that perhaps young people might eventually think it has some legitimacy.

That it's the only way to ensure a level playing field. That short-term gain is worth the risk and so many grown ups anyway just wink and turn a blind eye to such stuff.

That India's weightlifters get caught again, and again, the entire country gets banned from events, and two years later it's all back to normal, same faces, same lifters, same officials, so maybe it's not such a big deal, it's shameful but the shame passes.

Blithely we say to kids, echoing Vince Lombardi, that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing", though we rarely care to spell out the difference, as Lombardi's biographer David Maraniss does, that "there was a crucial distinction in his (Lombardi's) philosophy between paying the price to win and winning at any price."

Athletes leave me cold with their willingness to win at any price, and I'm no kid. Decades have passed since East German doctors systematically doped young athletes which led to tumours and cancers and in one terrible case a woman athlete opting for a sex change.

Still, despite the dangers, and the enhanced testing, they cheat, confirming it's human nature to be seduced by the short cut.

Athletes will store their blood and put it back into their bodies because more blood means more red blood cells, means more oxygen to the muscles, means better endurance performance. No, wait, sometimes they'll put other people's blood into their bodies. Worse, there is a suggestion that blood from a different species is sometimes used.

They'll inject human growth hormone even though it can lengthen your hands and result in a protruding jaw. They will use a catheter to insert someone else's fresh urine into their bladder so as not to get caught. They will experiment with a mixture called Belgian pot which is a mix of heroin, cocaine, caffeine and cortisone.

Cyclists have died in their sleep, on the bike, but riders will still inject and swallow. On the Internet, I found reports of two studies where doctors offered athletes a hypothetical magic pill, saying it would mean constant victory for five years but then death. Half the athletes they polled said it would be worth taking. Sometimes you're not sure whether athletes want to be invincible, or take drugs because they already believe they are.

Money has made it a worthwhile bargain for many. In a recent list, the top 10 earning athletes of last year (prize money and endorsements) together took home just over $363 million dollars. Some men evidently will kill themselves for a fraction of that money.

If they get caught, they deny, they'll say they ate too much nandrolone-fatted veal, or inhaled second-hand marijuana smoke and will henceforth wear a gas mark at parties, or that their toothpaste was spiked with drugs. These are real excuses from athletes who tested positive.

Who do they think will believe them? Maybe only a kid.

Great, wonderful, clean, authentic heroes remain and sport is hardly in crisis. But in a world where numerous feats by weightlifters and cyclists and sprinters and throwers are looked at askance, inaction will be fatal. It means more honest athletes need to speak out. Parents need to draw lines. Coaches need to be monitored. Schools need to emphasise fair play. Bans should be more than two years and at least ensure the missing of the next Olympics.

If nothing else so that kids believe it's safe to put up posters. After all, what fun is growing up without heroes?