There’s a fascinating article in the Monday, August 7 edition of the Wall Street Journal about the history of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports (I can’t find a link to it on-line).
The author, Cynthia Crossen opens with an anecdote about the American weight-lifter Ken Patera who, in 1972, competed against the great Russian super heavyweight, Vassily Alexeev, in the Munich summer olympics. Patera, later a “bad guy” professional wrestler, reflecting on his upcoming battle with Alexeev, observed:
“The only difference between me and him was that I couldn’t afford his pharmacy bill. Now, I can. When I hit Munich next year, I’ll weigh in about 340, maybe 350. Then we’ll see which are better – his steroids or mine.”
The Olympics started testing for certain kinds of drugs, like amphetamines, in 1968, though the games did not ban steroid use until 1975. But, as Crossen points out, when competitive, professionalized modern athletics first emerged in the late 19th century, it was understood that high-level athletes would use drugs to get an advantage.
Crossen quotes John Hoberman, University of Texas professor and historian of sports doping:
“Ethical objections, such as the idea that doping is a violation of the ‘spirit of sport,’ did not exist at the beginning of the high-performance era…The entire athletic enterprise was regarded as an exploration of human limits and what could be done to extend them. The idea of using drugs to combat fatigue seemed like a perfectly natural strategy, since the primary competition was between human beings and their fatigue symptoms.”
Some early examples of such open use include the US marathoner Thomas Hicks, who won the 1904 gold medal and was plied with low doses of strychnine and brandy along the route and the now widely quoted Jacques Anquetil, the French cyclist who won the Tour De France each year from 1957 to 1961 and asserted that, of course, drugs were integral to the competition:
“only a fool would imagine it was possible to win the Tour de France on mineral water.”
Hoberman also told Crossen that:
“over the past half century, the quantifiable elite sports, such as weight lifting and track and field, have developed into nothing less than an enormous biomedical experiment on the human organism itself.”
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the emerging controversy surrounding the use by a growing number of elite athletes of tents meant to simulate high-altitude conditions. The Times report on that piece noted that opponents of the tents were tentatively groping toward articulating a standard for defining “the spirit of sport.” I think that is going to be a tall order, not least because sports fans themselves are so conflicted about what it is they want out of their sports entertainment. If what sports fans want is athletes able to stretch the limits of human capacities and compete at a level most of us can’t fathom, then that suggests that the older ethic – articulated by Hoberman above about the exploration of human limits – seems appropriate. But, if what sports fans want is a kind of amateur ethic – where citizen athletes, otherwise ordinary men and women are able, by dint of hard work and greater skill, to achieve that which humans don’t normally think themselves capable – then a different sort of standard is indicated.
My own opinion is that both are entirely valid ways of
thinking about sports but that they are becoming, increasingly, mutually
exclusive. Furthermore, I don’t think the latter ethic, as valid as it is on
its own terms, is really any longer possible, given the multi-billion dollar
enterprise that big time athletics has become. We have already made our deal
with the devil – the sportsworld wants to see the very best athletes perform at
the very highest levels in order to achieve the ultimate prize – conquest of
all competition, that is, winning championships.
As that ethic becomes more and more prevalent, the growing clamor to do something about performance-enhancing drugs will be increasingly futile. The primary victim will be the credibility of all high-level athletic endeavor.
I think we’re better served by admitting that we’ve already chosen the sporting ethic that best captures what we want, and adopting policies that acknowledge the choices we’ve already made. It’s time to let the athletes get ready for combat however they deem necessary. On the whole, we don’t really care what they do to their bodies, so long as they get their bodies ready to maximize the competition we want to see.
The current state of affairs is hypocritical, and it’s not going to serve the athletes or the integrity of the competition to impose policies that salve some moral discomfort but that, in reality, are just as much of a show as the games on the field.