Vijay Singh’s admission last week of using the deer antler spray has raised the question of the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in professional golf. Singh has vehemently denied that he knew that the deer antler spray contained any banned substance (the substance being Insulin Growth Factor known as IGF-1).
Fair or unfair for Singh, like any athlete that has been associated with PEDs, it raises the question whether Singh has used PEDs at any other point in his career.
Let’s first state the obvious: PEDs can help a PGA Tour player be a better golfer.
If there is one thing we have learned, it is naïve to believe that there are sports in which the athletes that would not benefit from PEDs. PEDs can help in every single athletic endeavor. This knowledge, mixed with fame, money and the competitiveness innate to almost every elite athlete creates an oft- repeated stew across all professional and elite sports. In the absence of rigorous testing, it is almost impossible to expect a sport to be free of PEDs.
We have experienced the evolution of both the sophistication of PEDs and corresponding public perception of PEDs over the past several decades. In the seventies and early eighties, it was first perceived by the public that PEDs were limited to steroids that improved bulk and certain types of speed (i.e. the East German track team and basically all Olympic weightlifting). In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a common misconception that steroids were not helpful for many sports because you didn’t want bulky muscles. Some of that myth still exists today to listen to some recent responses about Singh’s circumstances or to some of the more famous hockey commentators talk about hockey players. Mostly though, any moderately informed person knows that PEDs can help in any athletic endeavor. The revelations of Ben Johnson in 1988 and other track stars (allegedly Florence Griffith Joyner and too many others to name) and the historic success of the stars of the baseball steroid era showed that PEDs were effective in mainstream sports. Steroid clearly helped quickness and coordination.
It turned out PEDs did not mean bulking up as originally perceived by the public. Skinny athletes like Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Petr Korda and Andy Pettite used PEDs to achieve success that varied from good to historic. The change in the public's terminology from ‘steroids’ to 'PEDs' itself illustrates the change in our understanding of doping. Steroids implied muscles and bulk to make one bigger and stronger than naturally possible. The change to the use of the expression PEDs implies the use of chemical enhancers to improve performance, whether it is physical size, endurance, training recovery or even neurological performance.
Of course, the skinny tennis player Korda tested positive for what would seem now like the very pedestrian steroid nandrolone. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were now aware of BALCO and terms like HGH and EPO from the cycling world. Basic East German and Ben-Johnson-esque steroids were no obviously longer the way to go. There were much more sophisticated drug programs (although whenever they interview the trainers and physicians, they never seem that sophisticated and always a bit dopey) involving Human Growth Hormone (HGH), EPO, managed testosterone programs and designer PEDs. The newer PEDs were not only harder to detect but did not even seem to carry the negative health stigma (so far) of the Cold War era steroids.
The point is by the late 1990s, it was well known in professional and other elite sporting circles that there were PEDs that were difficult to detect and did not involve bulking up. Any semi-sophisticated athlete or trainer would and should know that PEDs were not just about adding muscle but helped speed recovery – whether from a specific injury as claimed by Andy Pettite or just a regular training routine.
What About Golf and Vijay Singh?
First, there is absolutely no evidence that Singh took any PEDs other than the admitted IGH-1 in the deer antler spray starting in 2011. I would like nothing more than to know that Singh never took any PEDs. I have always been a fan of his aggressive style of play, his demeanor and that he seemed to be liked by his peers. And yes, I admired his work ethic.
For all of us in our 40s, we would like nothing more than to believe it is possible to reach the pinnacle of an athletic endeavor (during the era of Tiger no less!) at the age Singh achieved his greatest success.
But it would be naïve not to consider whether PEDs could have been part of the picture.
The PGA Tour did not institute drug testing until the 2008 season. Even so, it does not appear to be the strictest program and not like serious PED programs like the current MLB rules, professional cycling and the various Olympic sports which require unannounced out of season testing and perform baseline testing against an individual athletes levels of substances (e.g. testosterone). In other words, even today it would be difficult to imagine the PGA Tour being able to identify a sophisticated user of PEDs.
Unlike cycling and certain Olympic sports, in golf it is impossible to test the past by using prior blood sample. There are no blood samples from the past. In the absence of blood tests or an individual coming forward with direct knowledge, it seems impossible to obtain any objective hard evidence of any PED use prior to 2008.
Is there another way to look at it?
The Tells: Is There a Pattern to Identify PED Users?
Like in poker, perhaps there are certain tells an athlete has which provide hints as to whether they are taking or took PEDs. Unlike poker on TV, you can’t always see the cards the athlete is holding.
Obviously, it is not fair to accuse all successful athletes in the 80s, 90s and 2000s of taking PEDs. That said, it is also not fair to say it is not worth of discussing any athlete from that era.
We have a sufficient number of PED users (or those we have strong suspicions about and that in the public-eye are considered users of PEDs) to examine their behavior and records. Like some poker players, do they exhibit certain tells?
Change in Body
There are the obvious examples of Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire to illustrate how PED use appears to change a body. But as noted before, PED sophistication increased and the change in body type was no longer a requirement to show PED use.
Andy Pettite, Petr Korda and all those cyclists did not show the typical change in body types during their admitted use or positive test for PEDs. What we have learned is that athletes (and it turns out actors in Hollywood) use certain PEDs to help them recover from injury or train harder than they normally could.
It is logical that this would be very helpful in sports where practice and especially repetitive practice can have a significant positive impact on performance. It seems logical that PED-use in this context is helpful for baseball pitchers, baseball hitters and tennis players. Repetition is important.
In golf, repetition is critical.
When Accused: Unusual Denials
Deny. Deny. Deny.
That has always been the mantra of any PED user. It is the first and primary mantra for a simple reason: it works.
The consumption of athletics and professional sports by the general public is primarily for entertainment and enjoyment. People are fans and they want to believe in heroes. If an athlete simply denies PED use, even in the face of positive tests and other evidence, there will always be a significant portion of the public that will believe and support the athlete, especially if the athlete is likeable. There are countless examples and this approach even works today – even after countless athletes have been proven to be liars. One need only look to Armstrong who continued to have strong public support even after the damning USADA report last year.
Of course, there is an obvious weakness to relying on this as a tell: a non-PED user would also deny.
So, it is the manner of an athlete’s denial that may be interesting. The classic tell is the non-denial denial. Looking back to McGwire’s testimony in front of Congress shows how painfully twisted this can be. Clearly something about human nature makes it more difficult for many to be emphatic with direct lies, i.e. “I have never taken any PED!” is harder to say than “I have never failed a drug test” or “I believe someone has tampered with my sample or tried to sabotage me” (perhaps excluding Raphael Palmiero).
Before Armstrong’s admission on Oprah last month, it was always noticeable that his most emphatic public (and successful) denials always involved the fact he “never failed a drug test.” He never seemed to emphasize and repeat that he never took any PEDs. In hindsight, it seems almost blatant now.
The Team Around The Athlete
Ben Johnson had Jamie Astaphan and Charlie Francis. Bonds and Marion Jones had Victor Conte of BALCO. Lance Armstrong had Dr. Michele Ferrari and others.
What is also common in many of these relationships is that the person with the PEDs was always described as more than a trainer, but a friend and confidant. It seems a specific bond is created in the illicit behavior of administering PEDs.
It is also notable that trainers or doctors involved in PEDs almost always claim to have some “unique” training method to explain the unusual success -- before being banned from the particular sport for some involvement in PEDs. An examination of the history of these trainers almost always seems to reveal that they promoted or claimed a new and unique training methods that will revolutionize the sport. In the end, it was often found to be PEDs.
This may be the best and yet most unfair tell of all. By definition, an elite athlete will almost always be unusual in some way.
In terms of the elite athletes, it now seems obvious when looking at the other-worldly performances of Armstrong, Bonds and Florence Griffith Joyner (it should be noted that Joyner never failed an drug test and always denied steroid-use … but in the case of FloJo, I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. No one has approached Joyner’s 100M and 200M world records for over 20 years. This was in a sport in which world records were consistently broken at regular intervals (for the 70 years prior to Joyner's records in 1988, the world record was broken virtually every year and at most, there would be a 4 year interval between world records). Even admitted PED-user Marion Jones, using the sophisticated programs of BALCO 10 years later, was unable to even approach Joyner’s times).
These athletes accomplished feats that were far beyond their peers and may not be surpassed anytime in the near future. Armstrong’s times for various famous mountain climbs in the Tour De France have not been matched in recent years (even while bicycle technology has increased significantly). Even the idea of an individual winning seven Tour de Frances seems almost laughable.