A decade ago, supermen ruled the sports landscape. Sports Illustrated arrived at the end of 2002 with a cover featuring Lance Armstrong leaning on his bike and exuding the resolve that helped him beat cancer and then win the Tour de France four times. He was proclaimed “Sportsman of the Year” and would go on to win the Tour three more times. Also in 2002, Barry Bonds, amidst his run of four consecutive MVPs all awarded after he turned 37, chased Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron to be the career home-run king, having already bested Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for the single-season mark. An impossibly dangerous hitter, pitchers frequently opted to hand Bonds first base rather than risk him taking three more bases with his otherworldly swing. Roger Clemens, meanwhile, continued to hurl his high heater past hitters, winning his sixth Cy Young award at age 39 and his seventh at 42.
Now the era of supermen seems to be over. Since baseball created a testing regime tied to serious punishments, home runs have ebbed. Superstars like Alex Rodriguez have taken to tearful public confessions. Others, like Manny Ramirez, have served suspensions — though the fact that then-National League MVP Ryan Braun evaded suspension in 2011 due to a procedural error shows the imperfect nature of the testing regime. Cycling, meanwhile, has been revealed to be a cesspool of performance-enhancing drugs and many Americans have cynically lost any interest Armstrong inspired. Some athletes, like Olympic gold medalist sprinter Marion Jones, have served jail time for legal fallout from doping inquiries. Investigation and punishment have been the preferred means of the committees and commissions that rule our sports — and they continually struggle to keep up with the pharmacological innovations that can make our athletes jump higher, run faster, hit harder, and concentrate better.