Category: olympics

Thoughts on Lance and Performance Enhancing Drugs

This post has been festering in my head since the fall of 1988 in the aftermath of Ben Johnson being stripped of his Gold Medal and 100 meter World Record.  Johnson was immediately a villian beyond redemption, but the race was electrifying.  I saw it.  It happened and no executive action could take that away. 

I felt the same way following the Congressional hearings on baseball’s steroid era.  I enjoyed Big Mac and Sammy Sosa’s home run race in 1998, the lethal home run hitting Barry Bonds and the extended run of Roger Clemens.  None of these men were recently inducted into the Hall of Fame despite being the dominate players of the era because all three were connected to performance enhancing drugs.

This week Lance Armstrong ended years of speculation and investigation by admitting his use of PED’s.  In each instance the response is the same there is indignation and outrage, sponsors drop the villian, achievements are vacated or stripped and it happens again.

“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” – Nascar proverb

The primary complaint against the use of PED’s is cheating, specifically that it creates an unfair competitive advantage.  This is contextual.  Seven of the eight finalists in the 1988 100 meter final tested positive at some point in there career including Carl Lewis during the US trials BEFORE the 1988 games.  To the extent they revealed anything, the Congressional hearings on baseball established that PED usage was rampant throughout the league among hitters and pitchers.  As for Armstrong, over half of the Tour De France top ten finishes during his reign have been tainted by a positive test or admission. 

PED’s are generated by medical science.  The same science that we entrust to cure cancer, heart disease and other ailments.  Periodically advancements are made that increase human performance in sports.  This is not sinister.  It’s progress in the same way that weight training, nutrition and improved surgical practices have contributed to improved athletic performance and longevity. 

PED’s do not directly result in increased athletic performance.   They facilitate with rapid recovery and energy stimulation the training necessary to increase the performance.  In the instance of aging athletes like Clemens and Bonds, PED’s enabled them to train longer amd harder diminishing the effects of age.  In that sense, it represents a higher degree of commitment to performance than many athletes are willing to put forth.  Contrast your sentiments of Clemens and Bonds in that light against your feelings for a talented athlete, who routinely appears unfit or smokes marijuana.

The second biggest argument against PED’s is the long term consequences of their use is unknown.  What is known, however, is that competing at the highest level of sport is not good for anyone’s long term health.  Being an elite athlete already comes with a price sometimes as steep as death or severe mental illness and more commonly accelerated degeneration of the spine and joints.  These are consequences that each athlete accepts as they progress up the pyramid in their field, and frequently the reason many athlete’s don’t reach the highest level.

PED’s are a part of sport and should, if not accepted, be viewed in context rather than the constricting narrative of cheating and villian-making.  To do otherwise is a hypocritical betrayal of who we are and what we truly believe of competition.

Tainted Love

Carl Lewis was appropriately named Olympian of the Century. He won nine gold medals and one silver over four Olympic games from 1984-1996. No one in history has approached that level of dominance over that length of time in a sport as demanding as track and field. In context, he matched Jesse Owens performance in the 36′ Games then come back and won another five gold medals and one silver over the next three Games. Footnote for Owens, a small global tiff commonly referred to as World War 2 prevented him from competing in the Olympics again. Footnote for Lewis, he produced arguably the worst live rendition of the National Anthem in the history of singing.

Carl Lewis, though awarded the gold medal, lost the biggest race of his life, the 100 meter final in the 1988 Olympics. The race was the most anticipated event of the Games pitting Lewis and his Olympic pedigree against Ben Johnson, a Jamaican ex-pat running under the Canadian flag. Johnson won the bronze medal in the 1984 games, but came on thereafter beating Lewis four times in 1987 including the World Championships. Lewis beat Johnson before the Olympics in 1988, and brazenly declared he would never lose to him again. It was as hostile as a rivalry could be between two men running in parallel lanes without making physical contact.

Johnson was short, powerful like a running back, and exploded from the blocks. Lewis was tall, lean, and dominated the second 50 meters with his majestic stride. Johnson would likely lead from the blocks and the drama would be whether Lewis could catch and pass him. Their was palpable electricity in my living room, the stadium must have been so a hundred fold.

Lewis and Johnson got in the blocks. The gun fired. Johnson burst into the lead with Lewis following. As the second 50 meters unfolded, Lewis did not close the gap. 10 meters from the tape, Johnson thrust a triumphant fist in the air.

9.79. A world record. It was breathtaking, unfathomable, defiant and unforgettable. It exceeded all expectations, and redefined the possibilities of human performance. It was glorious.

Days, weeks, months, hell maybe a year later as I remember that race better than anything that followed, Ben Johnson would fail a drug test, and appeal, and ultimately be stripped of the gold medal, the record, and his fame became infamy. Lewis would be awarded the gold medal, and enhance his Olympic credentials with more medals in 92 and 96.

From that race on, any stunning performance, Bolt in Beijing or Ye in London, is met with equal measures of suspicion and admiration. In that way, it is all tainted, but what a spectacle it is.

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Michael Phelps and the Black Hole of Success

At some point on the flight back from Beijing, Michael Phelps exhaled, and if only for a moment, looked at his eight gold medals and thought…..what now?

His was by any standard a spartan life based on training and the goal of eight gold medals in Olympic swimming. Swimming is the quintessential Olympic sport. It is dramatic and easy to comprehend. It occupies the first week of the games, and Americans generally do well. In a poll, most viewers would acknowledge that they know how to swim and enjoy or plan to watch Olympic swimming. An overwhelming minority of these same people could give a crap about swimming at any time other than the Olympics or as necessary to save their own life. I am fairly certain a swimming federation exists and holds “world” championships on an annual basis, but to have any meaning beyond the confines of the competitive swim community, you must perform at your best in the Olympics.

In Beijing, Michael Phelps performed better than any swimmer in history. He became an instant celebrity recognizable anywhere in the world. For several months, he basked in his accomplishments with interviews, photo shoots, women, money and to some degree marijuana. Celebrity is temporary, and to be honest, Phelps doesn’t have much to offer the world beyond his swimming talents.

Inevitably, he finds his way back to the pool. It’s what he does best, and where he is most at home. Things are different though. There are no more goals to top what he has already done, and he doesn’t even have the immediacy of repeating or defending his achievements as the next chance is three and half years away. Absent, an obsessive personality on the cusp of mental illness, it is all, but impossible to swim with the same focus. His body released from it’s regiment for as long as it has ever been, and aged four years, may not ever be as it was in Beijing. He is a victim of his own success. His competitors, inspired by his game-raising accomplishments and hungry for the faintest trace of vulnerability, gain focus in what becomes an almost zero sum game.

This morning in London Michael Phelps swam again as an Olympian. He lost to rival Ryan Lochte, a result that many felt possible, even probable during these games. He lost to two other swimmers and did not medal. That was unexpected. There will be speculation as to fitness, illness or the like. He will swim again in these games, and may yet add to his gold medal tally, but today the black hole got him.