Is there too high a price to pay for winning?

    Have you ever thought about what it’s worth to win? Is it worth hard work? Blood? Sweat? Tears? Is it worth losing years off your life?

    As far as I’m concerned, there are only two channels on our TV: ESPN and ESPN2. I was watching the latter on one of those days where it gets to be early afternoon before you realize that you’re still wearing your pajamas and that you’ve accomplished nothing all day except to put a sizable impression of your butt in the couch. That’s when one of those world’s strongest man competitions came on.

    I must admit, I’m a sucker for these things. There’s something about watching huge men pull semis uphill and toss around 100-pound weights like they’re toys that pulls me in. Beyond that, these strongmen have such great names: Svend Karlsen, Magnus Samuelsson, Janne Virtanen, and the great American hopes, Phil Pfister and Johnny Perry.

    I was watching Perry’s qualifying group for the 2002 finals for probably about the fifth time, but for the first time, I saw the screen that came on immediately after it was over: Johnny Perry, 1972-2002. It hit me like one of those final fingers had been dropped on my chest. This symbol of strength and virility is dead.

    As I walked back to my bedroom to get dressed, I wondered what had happened. A few quick taps on the keyboard and I found out: Johnny Perry died at age 30 of a heart attack that was caused by steroid use.

    I call it a tragedy. The athletes in these strength events might call it a calculated risk. They’ve mortgaged a chance to kiss their grandchildren, to enjoy social security and to grow gray gracefully for a chance to get ahead now — for a chance to be the greatest.

    Only the most naive among us would believe that steroid use is confined to the relatively obscure realm of strength competitions. “”SportsCenter”” is filled each night with guys who have gotten that extra edge at the drug store rather than the weight room, and they too must face the question: What’s it worth to win?

    The questions we face as fans are nearly as daunting: Are we to blame here, too? By the demands we place for bigger and stronger athletes, and the way we glorify winning, are we encouraging the next generation of Johnny Perrys to take the same kinds of risks? Are we prepared to face the consequences?

    Sports are all about pushing the human body to its limits, but with an Olympian innocence — we often overlook that drugs can take the body beyond what it was designed to do — often at great cost in the long run. The greater the prize, the greater the risks willing to be taken and with the games we play having ever-increasing rewards for those who excel, we can only expect the use of performance-enhancing substances to increase. The questions of “”To what end will this continue?””, and “”What risk is too great?”” are inherently individual, but they must be asked lest we forget Johnny Perry’s lesson for us.

    The next time you hear someone talking about winning at all costs, remember that winning at all costs isn’t always winning. Sometimes it’s going to bed and not waking up.

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