William Rhoden writes in the New York Times today that Tour de France champ Floyd Landis’ positive drug test is another crushing blow to sports integrity:
“JUST when fans allow themselves to feel warm and fuzzy about an apparent heroic sports performance, we get punched in our collective stomachs by yet another steroid scandal.
Increasingly, everything we think we see — and assume is fair — is little more than a sports mirage: the home-run hitter, the world-class sprinter, now the championship cyclist.”
Pat Forde, on ESPN.com yesterday, expressed similar sentiments (http://select.nytimes.com/2006/07/28/sports/othersports/28rhoden.html?ref=sports):
“We barely got to know Floyd Landis -- barely got to celebrate his stunning Tour de France triumph -- before he was plugged in alongside the rest of the sketchy characters in sports' alleged doper lineup. One day, he's the gritty Mennonite with the bad hip and a taste for beer, surprise successor to Lance Armstrong, America's freshest jock hero. The next, he's gone from yellow jersey to scarlet letter, helping perpetuate the reputation of cycling as dirtier than Pigpen's fingernails.
But it's hardly the only sport we can't trust.
Off the top of my head, I'd exempt curling from skepticism. That's about it.”
This is only a drop in the bucket: the sense that we’ve lost our innocence, that no one can be trusted, that everything we hold sacred about sports is becoming profane before our very eyes is a ubiquitous trope in our sports conversations.
As I’ve written before, I have real doubts about whether it makes sense to ban performance enhancing drugs. It’s not clear to me that we’ve drawn the line of acceptability in a way that stands up logically. Athletes engage in all sorts of practices all the time - from sweating out weight before a wrestling match, to engaging in training that might seriously inhibit the normal maturation process of female gymnasts’ bodies to playing a brutal game like football in 100 degree heat in full pads when doing so increases the risk of heat stroke - that clearly and significantly endanger their health. And, I am not yet convinced that there’s proof that the things we do ban, and call cheating, are more dangerous, on average, than the things we accept.
Rhoden and Forde’s laments, reflecting the sentiments, no doubt, of countless sports fans, are understandable. But, they may well be based on an ultimately untenable premise – that the spirit of sport is violated by certain types of practices that might be physically risky but likely improve short term performance, but not other types of practices that may be physically risky but likely improve short term performance.
Earlier this week, the Times reported on a new performance enhancing practice that several elite cyclists were engaged in – sleeping in altitude tents or altitude rooms. According to Science Times writer Gina Kolata, the effect of this practice is to:
“simulate the low-oxygen conditions of high altitude. This prompts the body to make more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and can lead to improved endurance.”
Though currently legal, the tents may soon be banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), whose ethics committee has now deemed the altitude rooms in violation of the “spirit of sport.”
As Kolata points out, the fact that WADA is wading into the question of defining what the spirit of sport is could have far-reaching implications. Dozens of scientists have written a letter protesting WADA’s potential move, arguing that they are starting down a slippery slope if they ban the altitude practice, especially since athletes who live at altitude appear to have an enormous competitive advantage, especially in endurance events. Former New York City marathon champion Alberto Salazar warned that:
“if the World Anti-Doping Agency were to ban altitude tents and rooms, the effect on United States distance runners would be devastating. Nike has outfitted the bedrooms of its athletes to make them altitude chambers.”
Salazar also noted that “about 40 percent of the athletes
increase their red-blood-cell count as a result.”
The implications for athletic integrity are clear:
''Altitude training is absolutely essential…Any athlete who wants to be competitive in the world scene would have to move to altitude or cheat by using an altitude room or taking illegal drugs.''
This is just one small example of a much larger problem: how do we determine when elite athletes, who push their bodies far beyond what most people can fathom, have done so in a way that violates the “spirit of sport?” I am generally unmoved by slippery slope arguments: life is always a matter of making imperfect decisions. But, in the performance-enhancing debate, as of now, I’d err on the side of accepting all performance enhancing drugs, until someone can more persuasively argue why these things should be banned. We know the pressure to use is only growing. Who’s benefiting at this point from the inevitably arbitrary and flawed nature of enforcement?