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Opinion: Anderson Silva's drug test doesn't make him a cheater, it makes him desperate

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PED use in pro sports has a lot more to do with desperation than gaining a competitive advantage.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, I want to say that this isn't an attempt to excuse Anderson Silva's drug test failure or an attempt to dismiss the idea that he may have been using for years in the lead-up to his failed test before UFC 183. Whether he potentially has or not, I believe is largely immaterial. I want only to cast a less severe (whether in support or in denouncement) voice into the conversation of performance-enhancing drug use in sports. I find this most particularly important, as we exist in a climate where not only is drug use believed to be fairly rampant, but very few fighters (or athletes if you get right down to it) actually fail a test. Most reporting leads us to believe PED use is everywhere, but our encounters with cheaters, all things considered, are fairly rare.

This, in my experience, creates some serious dissociative thinking in the fan populace. On the one hand, It's reasonable to think that PED use is fairly common in MMA. I mean, this is a sport where fighters are constantly, regularly advertising their use of a large variety of supplements as a normal part of their training camps. It's almost a given, that if you want to maintain the level of fitness needed to compete as a pro athlete, you have to have a highly specialized dietary regimen. Very few athletes can maintain their level of fitness with what most people would consider a standard diet. Is it really a bridge too far then, to think that they'd be against putting a few extra chemicals into their bodies that would make the complex demands of their regimen easier? Shortcutting nutritional needs is already the norm, we're just talking about what shortcuts are being taken.

On the other hand, drug test failures, in their rarity, become big, public affairs. When a fighter fails a test, the world knows (unless we aren't told). Those few foolish enough to test positive become the venting points for fan anger and for suspicions about a broader culture that only ever seems to get mentioned in dubious percentages and "guys at other gyms." Fans can feel like they know athletes are using, but they don't know exactly who or how much.  So, in those circumstances, are all fighters cheaters? Are the fighters who test positive somehow bigger cheaters than the fighters who we assume use and don't? It seems simplistic to draw a hard line between the two groups. If I assume that most fighters have taken PED's at some point in their career, with any variable amount of consistency, then the conversation about fighters who get caught isn't by necessity a conversation about "cheaters."

Most often what I end up seeing, in fighters who fail drug tests, is desperation. I see people pushed outside their normal bounds (whether those bounds might include regular drug use or not) and into a situation where those athletes felt that their best choice was to take a substance that would likely result in a drug test failure. When Kevin Casey popped for Drostanolone in 2014 he talked about "making a bad decision trying to cut weight." It was the first fight in his return to the UFC, no doubt the desire to perform well and make weight was high. Generally, one of the more common drug test failures can be simplified as "fighters trying to make weight." Similarly, we also see fighters like Dennis Hallman, Joey Beltran, and Kit Cope, all busted coming off various injuries. Men desperate to compete again after their bodies failed them. Stephan Bonnar has, to his credit, gone into a fair bit of detail when recalling his steroid use (transcription via MMAMania):

I was desperate. My right elbow had been bad for a while, and I hurt it bad getting ready for Rashad [Evans on June 28]. Right after that fight, I thought I'd have some time off to do some therapy, rehab and heal. And five days later, I get a call to fight Forrest in a month and a half. I was worried. I was looking for something to speed up the healing. I just was worried I was not going to be able to fight, and they needed me. This wasn't an undercard fight; it was the main event. Pulling out was not an option.

Sports, in the way our modern world has constructed them, are more a story of desperation than a story of victory or achievement. The money at stake, the lifelong investment into a career that very few people are actually capable of maintaining, (and in MMA a career that even fewer will ever make a real living at, as a full-time competitor) mean that for the few that succeed many more people are most likely going to fail. Most athletes are working constantly to avoid failure, just as much as they are working constantly to find success. Unlike most careers, the grip an athlete has on his or her future success is a finger-hold at best. And the moment they fall back, there are a hundred people looking to replace them. Sports breed desperation.

Once again, this isn't meant as an excuse. Merely an explanation. An attempt to humanize when fandom wants to idolize and demonize. The idea that cheating in sports exists on some black/white continuum, in which fighters sit on either side of a center line, undercuts the same arguments we have about athlete safety, athlete pay, and athlete rights. None of these things exist in a vacuum. I want to see fighters as people and people tend to be more complicated than the little bits of them we see as extensions of our favorite sports.

Maybe Anderson Silva has been cheating habitually for years. Maybe (as unlikely as it seems) he fell victim to a moment of weakness. Either way, given the money at stake, his recovery from injury, his age, and his own stated desires to perform, it's hard not to see his failure here as one born out of desperation above all else.