As Mark Emmons’ recent article in the San Jose Mercury News puts it,
“It reads like a roll call of America’s best athletes. Barry Bonds. Marion Jones. Jason Giambi. Gary Sheffield. Tim Montgomery. And even St. Lance himself, cancer survivor and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong.”
“All are confronting accusations of performance-enhancing drug use that hover like a cloud over their reputations.”
Apparently, the overarching importance of sports in our society, and the nauseatingly fervent attention being given to star athletes prompts such reactions as this one from sports sociologist Harry Edwards:
“We’re being stripped of our heroes, of our Horatio Algers. “Then we become in danger of believing in no one and nothing. Losing faith in everything is a very dangerous thing to happen to the world’s only superpower that’s used to thinking of itself as having higher moral authority.”
I think we’re way overdue for a reality check.
While it is true that by some tortured definition, a gifted athlete could be termed a “hero,” it nonetheless reflects a serious devaluation of the word. All the people mentioned above have led pampered lives, and Armstrong is hardly unique in being a cancer survivor. They have all been indulged, and allowed to do essentially nothing but train for their chosen profession. Moreover, they are all millionaires and media celebrities, garnering VIP treatment wherever they go.
If our culture and institutions have deteriorated to the point where their unmasking results in having nothing to believe in, then more’s the pity.
Years ago, such misplaced adulation would be condemned for what it surely is—idolatry. But that was back when you could still say “Merry Christmas,” when most families stayed intact, and even celebrity bastard babies were hidden. Don’t you feel LIBERATED by today’s mores?
Beyond the question of why people identify with athletes or sports teams at all, and frequently note that “we” won this or that game, is the matter of why using certain drugs is regarded as “cheating.” Cheating in sports should properly be limited to such events as the infamous “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, when Chicago White Sox players deliberately tanked the World Series. This is a far cry from attempting to monitor training, diet, or substance intake. Indeed, assuming we need to care about such “cheating,” and I don’t think we do, exactly what constitutes an unfair advantage?
During the 1972 Olympics, several athletes were accused of performing illegal “blood doping.” In this procedure, blood is withdrawn a few weeks before competition and is stored, whereupon it is re-injected a day or two before the event. With more red blood cells the athlete can process more oxygen, and should have enhanced endurance. A similar effect is said to occur if an athlete sleeps at high altitudes with low oxygen and trains at lower altitudes with more oxygen.
One wonders why it should be illegal to manipulate your own blood supply—especially when it is being done without drugs, although now drugs are available that are claimed to achieve the same effect. There are even stories of female athletes deliberately getting pregnant and having abortions a few days before an event, just to boost their red blood cell count for an edge on the competition. Note that this could never be prevented, yet most people with a grain of decency would agree that such activity is a whole lot more egregious than taking steroids!
In the early 1990’s, there were several TV documentaries exposing the extremely high incidence of genetically-damaged offspring from NFL players, mostly quarterbacks. Although it was pretty well accepted that these athletes had been taking all sorts of drugs, the shows focused instead on the plight of the youngsters, and it was heartrending.
Given the rewards in big time sports, there will always be the temptation to use whatever means necessary to improve one’s performance. And in that way, sports is no different from most other fields of endeavor, in this morally and ethically challenged society.