7 Famous Athletes Who Used Drugs in Sports

Drug use at work can get you fired, but is it cheating? When it comes to pro sports, it most certainly is.
Jared Rosenthal
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Say you know someone who got high at work. Even if they could get fired, depending on their job, you might give them a pass on the ethics of it. Let’s say they sit behind a desk all day. You might even say, “no harm, no foul.” On the other hand, when it comes to drug use among professional athletes, all bets are off. Like everything else sports-related, there are an abundance of strong opinions. However, one thing is clear. When athletes use drugs, it upsets the all important notion of a level playing field. It makes everyone bring to mind an athlete’s most dreaded word: “cheating”.

These strong reactions to drug use in sports are understandable, but the rush to judgement ignore the multitude of reasons why athletes may turn to drug use. Injury recovery, keeping up with their peers, fighting the aging process, simple accessibility to narcotics, and family history can all play a part. There’s even a hereditary basis to some drug addictions. No matter. A positive drug test result can have a devastating impact on an athlete’s reputation and career.

But don’t take my word for it. Below are the stories of seven high profile athletes whose lives were dramatically impacted when they were caught using illicit drugs:

Martina Hingis

Swiss tennis superstar, Martina Hingis, was considered one of the greatest women to ever play the sport. Unfortunately, her reputation is tarnished after the athlete tested positive for cocaine use in 2007. The International Tennis Federation retaliated with a two-year ban on the veteran player. Though, at the age of 39, Hingis opted to retire for the second time during her career, though she would return in later years.

Hingis also disputed her suspension as the amount of cocaine found in her drug test were so minimal that most tests would not detect it. She appealed that the amount was so minuscule that she could not have taken the drug intentionally, and rather it was through contamination.

Darryl Strawberry

One of the biggest names in sports during his time, Darryl Strawberry was an eight-time MLB All-star. Unfortunately, there were constant struggles with drug abuse during his baseball career. Strawberry was suspended by the league on three separate occasions for failing mandatory drug tests.

It wasn’t until after his retirement and an 18 month prison sentence that Strawberry found faith and recovered from his cocaine and alcohol abuse. Yet, his career was stifled by his addictions, costing him something much more critical than championships.

Ben Johnson

In the 1988 Summer Olympics, Ben Johnson reached international stardom when he obtained a gold medal in the 100 meter sprint with a record-breaking time. Unfortunately, his celebration was short-lived as he was stripped of his medal within a whiplash inducing 62 hours.

A urine drug test showed that Johnson had been using stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, costing him his record and a ban from the sport. It was later revealed that 6 of the 8 finalists in the race also tested positive for steroids! Johnson’s manager couldn’t help but making the obvious joke about there being many cheaters, but Ben just got caught.

Mark McGwire

In 1998, Mark McGwire was one of the biggest names in the world as he broke a 37-year-old record for most home runs in a single MLB season for the St. Louis Cardinals. That same year, McGwire tested positive for the steroid androstenedione, though it was not officially prohibited by Major League Baseball at that time.

Years after his retirement, McGwire opened up about his steroid use during his playing career, which leaves a significant asterisk on his multiple records within the league. Nevertheless, he should be commended for coming forward and helping younger players to understand the gravity of drug use in sports.

Maria Sharapova

Five-time Grand Slam champion, Maria Sharapova, was once the wealthiest athlete in women’s professional sports. The tennis superstar had been taking a drug known as Meldonium, a drug that is purported to help blood flow, for many years before it was banned by the ITF.

The results of Sharapova’s positive drug sample saw the star suffer a two-year ban from professional competitions as well as the loss of lucrative endorsement deals. Sharapova was able to get her ban reduced by a few months by convincing the sport’s arbiters that she didn’t know the drug was prohibited.

Mike Tyson

The youngest heavyweight boxing champion of all-time, Mike Tyson, has had a long battle with drug use. His superstar career began derailing as it became riddled with legal troubles, a felony, and seemingly non-stop struggle. The champ managed to avoid being caught for doping through various means, in particular by substituting urine specimens from family members. However, the truth ultimately caught up with the heavyweight, and he now openly discusses his battle with drugs to this date. Perhaps because he was never truly caught, his act of coming forward later in life allows this chapter to be instructive to younger athletes rather than being something that tarnishes his image. Then again, his image and record is so controversial that it is hard to imagine that anything could tarnish it beyond what it is already.

Lance Armstrong

At the height of his career, Lance Armstrong the rare cyclist who became a household name. He was considered one of the greatest athletes of his time. The professional cycler managed to win the Tour de France seven times. When he won it after overcoming testicular cancer, he became heroic and legendary, and he leaned into the positivity of that image. He used his celebrity status to start an organization that helps others with cancer.

Later, as steroid testing advanced, it revealed his highly sophisticated efforts to take them and avoid getting caught. Ultimately, the sport stripped him of all seven Tour de France titles. Though he denied drug use for many years, he eventually admitted to using multiple enhancements throughout his career. Perhaps because he had enjoyed an image as a clean and likable guy, his fall from heroism to villain was among the harshest of any athlete who was caught using drugs in the last generation.

Citations

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“Hingis claims innocence after positive test for cocaine.” ESPN, 1 November 2007, https://www.espn.com/sports/tennis/news/story?id=3089841.
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Gonzales, Matt. “Substance Abuse and Professional Sports.” DrugRehab.com, 30 May 2018, https://www.drugrehab.com/addiction/athletes/.
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Montague, James, “Hero or villain? Ben Johnson and the dirtiest race in history.” CNN, 23 July 2012, https://www.cnn.com/2012/07/23/sport/olympics-2012-ben-johnson-seoul-1988-dirtiest-race/index.html.
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“McGwire apologizes to La Russa, Selig.” ESPN, 11 January 2010, https://www.espn.com/mlb/news/story?id=4816607.
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“Maria Sharapova receives two-year ban for failing drug test.” The Guardian, 8 June 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jun/08/maria-sharapova-banned-two-years-failing-drugs-test-meldonium.
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Uribari, Jaime. “VIDEO: Mike Tyson says he used a fake penis to pass drug tests.” New York Daily News, 4 December 2013, https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/more-sports/tyson-fake-penis-pass-drug-tests-article-1.1537777.
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WRITTEN BY

Jared is the Founder of Health Street, the creator of the Who's Your Daddy DNA truck, and the host of VH1's Swab Stories.

WRITTEN BY

Jared is the Founder of Health Street, the creator of the Who's Your Daddy DNA truck, and the host of VH1's Swab Stories.

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