swimmers-olympics-steroidsCyndi Lauper is so 1980’s but we can’t help but use one of her songs here. She used to wail “Money, money, changes everything,” and Gary Hall Jr seems to be in total agreement with Lauper’s point of view. He says it is money that’s making fervid ripples in his sport today.

Hall is the unofficial yet outspoken advocate of swimming nowadays. If you asked us, we think he deserves that unsanctioned status since this guy has won tons of medals in three Olympics to date. No one can stop this guy anyway once he starts talking. We believe he never catches his breath (the man can breathe underwater, for crying out loud!) and we don’t have a choice but to listen.

So we listen and he’s announcing it’s not the Speedo’s new LZR Racer swimsuit that let his co-athletes break 42 world records since only February this year. He stops short of saying that if we believed that crap about rocket-technology and drag-resistant innovation then we’re a bunch of nincompoops.

Steroids, not swimsuits, are what making swimmers swim faster. Hall has this to say on Yahoo! Sports:

“Clearly we know now it wasn’t the suit that was causing all these world records to be broken (in 1976). It was copious amounts of steroids,” Hall said at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in July. “Can the suit technology distract from another issue? I think it’s pretty convenient for those indulging in another issue.”

“Another issue” is actually Hall’s euphemism for use of steroids and other performance boosters in swimming. And that “another issue” is brought about by money since the sport has now gained popularity in many countries, including in the United States. And popularity begets money; a welcome fortune that can come from many sources that many athletes are willing to take short cuts.

“I have mixed feelings about (the prosperity),” Hall said. “Back when I was making $1,200 a month as a ‘professional’ swimmer – and that was it – I always argued that more money should come into the sport and always was an advocate of professionalizing the sport. Now that I see this happening – in foreign countries and even here in the United States – an athlete has the opportunity to make millions and millions of dollars, (and) the incentive to cut corners I think is much greater. Money has presented a new problem.

“Doping in the sport could potentially make us yearn for those good old days where $1,200 a month was the plight of the swimmer – and not the decision to have to take performance-enhancing drugs to compete with some of the world’s best.”

Not many, however, share Hall’s very vocal approach on the problem. Other key players in the sport tend to swim away from the issue of doping in the sport. Famed coach Bob Bowman, for one, always gives an evasive reply when asked about doping in swimming.

“I really respect Gary and everything he’s done,” Bowman said, taking a break from the U.S. Olympic swim team’s practices at Stanford University in July. “He has a right to voice his opinion. I’m glad he speaks out if he feels he needs to.”

And with that, Bowman flashed a sly smile, pleased with his generic, vacuum-packed answer.

Bowman’s dance around the doping issue isn’t unusual. Unless it is ranting about the East German programs of the 1970s and 1980s, or sniping about the sudden success of some Chinese swimmers in the 1990s, banned substances are rarely a topic at the forefront of U.S. swimming. Instead, the sport has spent much of this decade celebrating its coming of age in both training and technology, not to mention hailing the arrival of Phelps – an almost messianic figure who will likely become in Bejing the most decorated athlete in the history of all Olympians.

Bowman can dance around the issue as long as he wants but he’s got to admit that the use of performance-enhancing drugs in diverse sport arenas is bleeding over at the once squeaky-clean sport of swimming. Take the recent case of Jessica Hardy.

And Hardy is definitely not the lone transgressor. The Yahoo! Sports article enumerates some doping incidents:

In November, Brazilian swimmer Rebeca Gusmao tested positive for testosterone and was given a two-year ban from the sport. In May, top Chinese backstroker Ouyang Kunpeng tested positive for the same drug as Hardy. The result was a lifetime ban handed down from the Chinese program for Kunpeng and his coach. And finally, three days before Hardy’s positive in late July, the Israeli Olympic program removed swimmer Max Jaben after he tested positive for the anabolic steroid Boldenone.

While none of these swimmers were considered superstars in the sport, their doping issues did little to douse Hall’s contention that drugs likely are a more prominent issue in swimming than most will admit. And even before Hardy tested positive, the U.S. hadn’t escaped at least some suspicion this decade.

In the fall of 2003, six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken was identified as a client of Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), which triggered the most massive doping investigation in sports history – the same BALCO lab that supplied shamed track star Marion Jones with steroids and other drugs.

Beyond Van Dyken, swimmer Dara Torres was dogged by doping rumors in her last Olympic foray in 2000. Those rumors were part of the reason she signed up for an aggressive USADA pilot program formerly called “Project Believe.” The 41-year-old Torres said she hopes to have an “open book” policy when it comes to her drug testing at the Beijing Games, and she expects to be aggressively picked over by WADA drug scientists this month.

But perhaps no group of swimmers can better illustrate how prevalent the use of banned compounds is in swimming than those hailing from China, the host country of 2008 Summer Olympics.

From CNNIS.com:

The 1990s were a decade of shame and glory for Chinese swimming, with world-beating performances overshadowed by the worst doping record in the world.

Thirty-two Chinese swimmers were caught for drug offenses in the 1990s, two of them twice, and another three were disqualified from a domestic competition for having excessive red blood cell counts, according to “Swimming’s Hall of Shame,” a history of doping offenses by Brent Rushall, a sports scientist at San Diego State.

The Yahoo! Sports article accurately sums it all up.

In the end, the cycle typically comes down to money.

In simplistic terms, the more an Olympic sport rises in acclaim, the more money flows into its coffers, and the richer the endorsements become for its athletes. The more highly compensated the athletes become, the more incentive there is to gain a competitive edge. And for the unscrupulous athlete, the need for that edge can create a financial opportunity for the doping expert.

“What other sports have shown is that the more money you put into a sport, the more somebody might have to lose, and the more someone might start swimming for money,” U.S. backstroker Aaron Peirsol said.

It has become undeniable that the financial rewards in the sport have matured a great deal over the last four years. In fact, for its individual athletes, swimming hasn’t seen a more lucrative four-year period than the one between the 2004 Games in Athens and those coming up in Beijing.