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.