There are a number of scary issues that I’m thinking about right now, but one of the simplest is the very thorough dismantling of Lance Armstrong’s career.
First off, the entire effort to regulate drug use in sports is a lost cause. That fight has been over for decades. Why? It’s simply not possible. Find a way to test for a substance or process, and everyone has moved on to the next substance and process. Unless we want to live in a world where trophies are retroactively pulled all the time, thus never knowing whether someone should be on the Wheaties box, we are wasting our time. Controlling illicit substances may be one of the most futile efforts humanity has ever made. We are much better at the easy stuff, like fair taxation and thought control.
In the illicit drug race, laws and regulations don’t work. They just don’t. In every case, there is a certain segment of the population, any population, who will find the benefits to outweigh the risks. Until the government figures out how to watch every last one of us every second of every day – the idea of which I’m sure attracts bureaucrats like crack attracts crackheads – that segment will always find a way to ride the chemical diversion of choice. Feel free to look up prohibition…
Second, for every elite athlete in every professional sport, there are at least a double handful of people who are making significant amounts of money off that athlete, which means that in every case, there is someone working as hard at promoting the sport at large as the athlete is working to reach the top of it. In the case of cycling, which here in the American breadbasket of overpaid athletes has never been particularly popular, there are undoubtedly a large cadre of promoters who have been more than happy to quietly encourage the most spectacular performances from American cyclists, even if meant a little EPO here and there. The surprising part to me is that Lance Armstrong is likely still protecting his sport by failing to talk about the pressure that he and every other pro cyclist is under to win at all cost.
Third, the argument for drug controls in sports is to protect the health of the athletes, right? Or is it to keep reminding ourselves that drugs are bad m’kaaaay? Either way, we have created a false argument that any seven-year-old could spot without too much prompting, and it’s a particularly insidious argument as well. “Total safety is possible.” Uh, no. Try as we might, we cannot escape the fact that everything involves risk. Without ranting off on a tangent, let’s just pause to think about what we have given up for the false elimination of risk. In order to be an elite athlete, one must take risks and one must make sacrifices. There are well paid athletes that sacrifice an entire normal life to reach their peak. Others break bones on a regular basis. Pro football players are running incredible risks with their long term health, with or without banned substances. So, to observe the risks that athletes must take to be any good at what they do, and then to say that the real risk comes from drugs… well, it doesn’t really fly in the face of sacrifices already made.
And if you are worried about the message to children, guess what? We make such minor deities of our top athletes that our children will ignore the risks altogether. If they somehow manage to be good enough, they may see an opportunity to be the next version of their own heroes. If they reach the point where the winners and losers are only separated by another, slightly illicit, risk… Well, we’re back to the crack and crackhead place. Our athletes are powerful symbols, whether they deserve it – as many absolutely do – or not.
Finally, top athletes are masters of another game altogether. Let’s jump back to Lance Armstrong. How many hours do you think he trained to even reach the jumping off point for competition? How many miles? Let’s say you want to become great at anything. How many hours does it take? I’ve heard it takes a minimum of 10,000. Is it possible to do anything for 10,000 hours without a massive amount of mental discipline? Did Lance Armstrong wake up every day with the immediate desire to train in the rain, in the cold, in the heat. No. He put away his immediate urge to sit on the couch and eat a pizza, and replaced it with a deeper urge, once that demanded the discipline to play a longer mental game. If you wanted to be the world’s best chainsaw carver, would you have the will to wake up every morning, fire up that chainsaw and carve until your artfully crafted log bear was lifelike enough to scare the neighbor’s dog? All high performance endeavors are a mental game after the basic requirements are met. We know this because the best athletes in the world can lose. The underdog can win. How many times has the dominant favorite in, say… Olympic gymnastics, spent his or her entire life getting to the Olympics, only to make a microsecond error in judgment and blow the whole thing? What happened to Michael Phelps at the beginning of the last Olympics? He sucked. Two days later, he was dominant again. Did he suddenly achieve a higher level of physical training? No, he just flipped the switches in his head that allowed him to push harder, unless of course, someone doped him up after the tests were over.
Once more to Mr. Armstrong. He’s in a sport which is about as doped up as any we can name. He specializes in an event with a “No Dope, No Hope” motto, and he wanted to win. In all likelihood, everyone who could pose a serious challenge was doing the same thing, and in all likelihood, the governing body of the sport was tacitly in on it, because they wanted the sport to grow, and the best way to grow it was to make it as exciting as possible. So, yeah. He doped up. The thing is, he still won. He still turned every pedal stroke. He pushed harder, from the inside, suffered more pain than a whole field of other elite dopers, and he dominated for years. The dope was the entry level. The mental game was the win.
So here we are, trying to destroy the man, and granted, he’s looking like a world class jerk. Unfortunately, he’s also a world class target, and he makes the best example, but of what? In a sea of pain and sacrifice along the road to victory, who are we to say that any risk, doping included, is more than an athlete should make. Who wins? Armstrong loses, cycling loses, but the odds of a clean sport in the future don’t seem promising. It seems to me that the only control for illicit substances for any purpose is to let them go and see what happens. The only real lesson is the one that is taught when our heroic athletes develop a tendency to drop dead at age 40. Life and death are great teachers, with great motivation. When a high school kid drops dead on the basketball court thanks to an ignorant round of juicing, you can bet he teaches a valuable lesson to the kids around him. Artificial limits, laws, and regulations do not. The more we enact, the better we ignore them. Why bother at all? I’m fairly sure that the athletes can discover their own tolerance for risk, even if a few of them need to die in the process.
What do we want? Greatness or safety? And yes, that goes far beyond sports and worlds beyond doping for the win.