Sports stars and athletes are always looking for a leg up on the competition. Whether it’s putting extra time in the gym, eating the right nutritional products, or trying out training routines, athletes will try almost anything to improve their talents.
But sometimes they can take it too far.
Performance-enhancing drugs have been around forever—caffeine is nothing new, after all. But ever since the rise of anabolic steroids, the modern international sports arena has become something of an arms race, as athletes vie to get a competitive edge before regulators can catch them in the act. Doping isn’t without risks—when P.E.D. users do get caught, the “cheater” label can be nearly impossible to shed—but even the specter of drug use can tarnish the spirit of competition and even inspire amateur copycats in rec leagues and high school sports teams.
Here’s a look at the biggest athlete performance-enhancing scandals in sports history:
Tyson Gay, Track and Field
Gay was one of the biggest stars in sprinting when he tested positive for a banned substance in 2013. Gay had previously won a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics and posted the second-fastest time in the 100-meter dash with a 9.69-second run in 2009 at the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix. After his positive test, though, Gay was banned from the sport for a year and stripped of his silver Olympic medal.
Rafael Palmeiro, Baseball
Palmeiro had a long and productive career in Major League Baseball, but his achievements have been called into question over P.E.D. use. In his 2005 book, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, José Canseco accused Palmeiro of using steroids, but later that year Palmeiro testified in front of Congress that he “never used steroids, period”.
Palmeiro was later suspended for testing positive for an anabolic steroid, although he claimed that he took it unknowingly. Palmeiro is one of only five players in baseball history to have at least 500 home runs and 3,000 hits in his career, but his connections to steroids have tainted his stats in the minds of many fans.
Rashid Ramzi, Track and Field
Ramzi showed that he was one of the elite athletes in his sport after winning the 800- and 1500-meter races at the 2005 World Championships, becoming the first man to ever win both events at the competition. A few years later, he won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing—the first ever for the nation of Bahrain—but that accomplishment soon was taken away after Ramzi tested positive for the banned blood-boosting substance CERA, and was stripped of his medal.
Manny Ramirez, Baseball
Ramirez is considered to be one of the best hitters in baseball history, but he also has had connections to performance-enhancing drugs. Ramirez was suspended for 50 games in 2009 after violating baseball’s drug policy for using human chorionic gonadotropin, which stimulates more testosterone production, while with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Early in the 2011 season, Ramirez violated the policy again and faced a 100-game ban, but he opted to retire instead.
By the end of the 2011 season, Ramirez asked to be reinstated and served a reduced 50-game ban before playing for the Oakland Athletics the following year. Ramirez also was allegedly (along with David Ortiz) among the 104 players that tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2003 MLB survey before the league implemented punishments for P.E.D. use. Guess it was just Manny being Manny.
Floyd Landis, Cycling
Everyone knows the big name in cycling when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs—don’t worry, we’ll get to Lance in a second—but Landis also had a hand in doping. Landis was first flagged in 2006 after one of his samples tested positive for a high ratio of testosterone after he had made a major comeback in a stage of the Tour de France that was considered suspicious. The cyclist later was suspended from the sport and, in a shocking moment of public bridge-burning, alleged publicly that Armstrong was also doping.
Dee Gordon, Baseball
Gordon’s penalty for violating the MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy may not be one of the “biggest scandals ever,” but it’s darkly symbolic for the wider sports world. Gordon is not considered a slugger by any stretch of the imagination—the slender second baseman weighs just 170lbs—and his positive test shows that it’s not just about power and home runs when it comes to using P.E.D.s.
Gordon went from solid player to elite talent after having a breakout year in 2015 while leading the National League in batting average, hits, and stolen bases. Gordon signed a five-year extension after that worth $50 million, but one wonders—and surely the Marlins do, too—whether his explosion in ability was P.E.D.-driven.
Justin Gatlin, Track and Field
Gatlin has been dogged by performance-enhancing issues throughout his career, including in 2001 when he was banned for two years for testing positive for amphetamines. After appealing, Gatlin’s ban was dropped to one year, and soon after that he reached the highest stage in his sport: the top of the podium at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics.
Gatlin won three medals at the 2004 Olympic Games, including gold in the 100-meter dash after putting up a 9.85-second run. However, Gatlin was banned again in 2006 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The sprinter was banned for eight years after cooperating with federal authorities, which helped him avoid a lifetime ban from the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Mark McGwire, Baseball
To many in Major League Baseball, McGwire seemed like a godsend after the crippling 1994 strike. His chase of the single-season home run record in 1998 helped attract new fans and positive headlines at a time when the league desperately needed them. McGwire set the record with 70 home runs at the time (the record would later be broken by Barry Bonds, another player accused of using P.E.D.s) and ended his playing career with 583 home runs.
But all of McGwire’s achievements were suddenly cast in a different light after he was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs in Juiced, his teammate Jose Canseco’s P.E.D. tell-all. Later that same year, McGwire testified at a congressional hearing on steroids, but declined to answer questions about his alleged P.E.D. use. In 2010, McGwire admitted that he used P.E.D.s during the course of his career, saying that he wished he “had never touched steroids”.
Marion Jones, Track and Field
Jones became an American hero after she won five medals—three of them gold—at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. But her status as a hero went downhill after Jones was linked to the BALCO steroids scandal. In 2007, Jones admitted that she used steroids during the course of her career—and she paid dearly for it. Jones was stripped of her medals from the Olympics, and also was sentenced to six months in prison for perjury after previously lying under oath about her P.E.D. use.
Ryan Braun, Baseball
Braun was off to one of the best starts to a career of anyone in Major League Baseball when his P.E.D. use came to light. Through 2010, Braun had the eighth-most home runs of any player in the first four years of his career, and he took home the NL MVP award in 2011. But everything changed for Braun in December 2011 when ESPN reported that Braun tested positive for an elevated level of testosterone. The Milwaukee Brewers slugger later was connected to the Biogenesis scandal in 2013, and was suspended for a total of 65 games.
Ben Johnson, Track and Field
The Canadian sprinter defeated rival Carl Lewis at the 1988 Summer Olympics with a stunning time of 9.79 seconds in the 100-meter dash to win the gold medal. Johnson had previously won two medals at the 1984 Olympics and set a record with his time in 1988—but his glory was very short-lived. Just days after winning the gold, it was announced that Johnson tested positive for an anabolic steroid, leading to Johnson being stripped of his medal.
Alex Rodriguez, Baseball
Rodriguez was the top superstar in Major League Baseball for many years, and many expected him to be the “clean” record-holder for home runs by the time his career ended. All those hopes came crashing down in 2009 after Rodriguez admitted that he used performance-enhancing drugs earlier in his career. Rodriguez led the New York Yankees to a World Series championship later that season, but the story of A-Rod and P.E.D.s did not end there.
Rodriguez was later connected to the Biogenesis scandal in 2013, which led to him getting suspended for 211 games. Rodriguez appealed the suspension—playing for the Yankees while it was going on—but the ban was upheld and he missed the entire 2014 season. Rodriguez built back up some good will with his performance in 2015 after serving his suspension, but many around the sport—even some Yankees fans—can’t overlook the use of performance-enhancing drugs by the baseball star.
Roger Clemens (Allegedly), Baseball
Clemens was one of the most accomplished pitchers in baseball history when he was accused of doping. Clemens won seven Cy Young awards, an American League MVP award, and two World Series titles, but all of that was called into question after Canseco’s 2005 book accused him of using amphetamines, anabolic steroids, and human growth hormone during his career, though he was never suspended from the game. He was also named in the 2007 Mitchell Report, although he has consistently and unconditionally denied the allegations that he used steroids, including in testimony to a Congressional committee in 2008. Clemens was later indicted on perjury charges in 2010 and tried in court, but was found not guilty of perjury in 2012. Clemens has claimed that hard work helped him dominate the majors into the latter stages of his career, and not P.E.D.s.
Barry Bonds (Allegedly), Baseball
Bonds is one of the most controversial figures in baseball history. The San Francisco Giants star was one of the most accomplished players of all time: He won seven National League MVP awards, made 14 All-Star teams, and set MLB records with 73 home runs in a season (2001) and 762 career home runs—but all his statistical achievements have been looked at with a questionable eye due to his alleged history with P.E.D.s.
Bonds was connected to the BALCO steroids scandal and testified that while he did receive products from the company, he did not know they were banned substances. Bonds was indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges in 2007, and later was convicted in 2011, but that result was overturned in 2015. Bonds has been cleared of all charges related to using performance-enhancing drugs and his testimonials relating to drug use. He was never suspended by Major League Baseball for his alleged drug use.
Lance Armstrong, Cycling
The worst, and most explosive, of all P.E.D. scandals. Armstrong built an empire on his success in the cycling world and his comeback from testicular cancer, but all of that came crashing down when the American cyclist admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong won the Tour de France seven straight times from 1999 to 2005, and he also took home a bronze medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in the men’s individual time trial.
Armstrong had been subjected to countless accusations about doping, but he vehemently denied any use of performance-enhancing drugs during his career.
After years of denials, the cyclist admitted in a now-infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. The admission led many sponsors to drop Armstrong, and according to the Los Angeles Times, Armstrong lost $75 million in endorsements following the interview. “I feel ashamed,” Armstrong said to Winfrey.
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