International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year Sport Issues:
Values and the World of Sport
never tire of pointing out the ancient Olympians exemplified the
Greek ideal of mind and body. By comparison, they depict contemporary
athletes (including so called amateurs), as pampered money-mad celebrities
elevated to God-like status
athletes are treated like Gods, however, neither deification nor the
reaction to it is new. Many ancient Greek thinkers considered athletes
useless. Fifth-Century BC playwright Euripides complained: ". .
. they are splendid in their prime and go proudly about as ornaments
to a city, but when old age in its harshness falls upon them, they fade
away like cloaks that have lost their threads."
To Euripides, athletes created a false reality by distracting citizens
from more important matters. They wasted time devising special diets
high in energy and protein so men could better throw a javelin or hurl
a discus. "Are they going to fight enemies with a discus in their
hands or drive enemies from the fatherland . . ." asked the playwright.
Needless to say, Euripides was, as he would be today, in the minority.
Fueled by the media, modern spectator sports are topics of conversation
the world over. Better able than opponents to throw a ball by hand,
kick it by foot, or hit it by stick, not to mention run faster, or force
another to the ground before knocked, blocked, or hurled there themselves,
athletes are fabulously rich and famous. Their rewards derive from endorsements
as much as salaries or prize winnings. Euripides thin-threaded cloaks
have become perpetual golden vestures. In golf, a Masters tournament
victory means lifetime fame. Mohammed Ali has long been one of the most
recognizable people in the world. An entire endorsement industry is
built around basketballs Michael Jordan. Peles name has
been around longer than Jordans name. The list is endless.
Let us, however, be fair, the athletes life is not all money and
glory. Sports heroes suffer what other celebrities suffer (paparazzi
intrusions, rude autograph seekers, sex scandals, etc.), and are burdened
by a problem more acute than that faced by the ancients, overwhelming
competition. Todays athlete might not need years of formal education
or long job apprenticeships, but to compete at a championship level
requires hard work and great discipline. It also means courageous disregard
of the three most dreaded words in sport: career ending injury. The
successful athlete keeps paying a price until competition rudely informs
them their time is up. Aging, a cruel fate for everyone, is more so
for the athlete.
Now science has created something unknown to the Athenian javelin thrower
and discuss hurler performance drugs. Contemporary sports not
under a cloud of drug scandals are lucky, not immune. Drug use in sports
is increasing geometrically with the results often grotesquely comic.
The usual example is American baseball player Barry Bonds. Mister Bonds
began using drugs in his late 20s or early 30s (in baseball,
after age thirty one or two, your very best days are usually behind
you) and soon became about as good a player that ever lived. A startled
world watched Bonds age and became physically larger, stronger, and
more productive. When in his 40s, a time when only the greatest
players survive by residue of their gifts, Bonds dominated. Statistically
hes the greatest home run hitter in baseball history. Yet many
think an asterisk should follow his name so readers realize drugs made
his eyes sharper, his bat faster, his home runs longer and more frequent.
Drug use mean records are broken quicker (Drugs are not the only reason,
better nutrition, equipment and techniques play their parts) since bigger
athletes with quicker reflexes are simply better than those of the past.
In modern basketball, the 7 footer with speed, quickness and agility
is a commonplace; a 6 foot player an anomaly that scoots under opponents
as a squirrel might do redwoods. In American football, freakish behemoths
thunder up and down artificial turf, their arms the size of a players
legs 75 years ago. These mastodons of mayhem smash into one another
in collisions heard from one end of a l00,000 seat stadium to another.
Protected by pads covering massive bodies, they are modern gladiators.
Idolized by people of all ages, particularly children, its a shock
when they remove their visor-helmets to reveal they are frequently no
older than children themselves. We soon learn their values stem from
where they spent most of their lives, vacant lots, playgrounds, and
football fields: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Losing is like dying. Winning is not the most important thing, it is
the only thing! The future is now!" Such sententious certitudes,
usually adolescent and sometimes illogical, are uttered by athletes,
coaches, sportswriters, broadcasters, and most of the rest of us. What
resonates in locker rooms and playing fields has become the wisdom of
Depending on the season (increasingly protracted in every spectator
sport), game after game, match after match, finds supermen and superwomen
weekly, sometimes daily, pushing their over-sized bodies to limits increasing
by pill swallowing and injection sessions. They set standards of excellence
impossible for the average person to imagine, much less do.
The sports hero has become a super human, a God that achieves what William
James hailed as the American bitch-goddess, success. It is a resolute
success since competition declares it unquestioned. The heavyweight
champion can knock any man senseless, and proves it. Historically, sport
contests settle arguments "who is the best?" quite well.
Sports celebrity, so runs societys conscious and unconscious reasoning,
can be transferred to areas other than sports, hence the endorsement.
Restaurant chains, automobile and clothing manufacturers pay athletes
huge sums for testimonials. That these favorites might not eat the food,
drive the car, or be caught dead in the clothes, is something everyone
accepts and everyone ignores.
Sports celebrities, as do all celebrities, impart values not exactly
of the highest caliber. For centuries the process has been criticized
(as we saw by the quote from Euripides), to little avail. More and more
athletes symbolize commercialism, as they . . .
But let us wait a moment, just who are the THEY? Are "they"
the athletes that through ability, hard work, and risk of injury, rise
to the top? If so, why should they not be rewarded? Who has the right
to decide how much honor and riches the world bestows to the best regardless
of profession, or whether or not the activity is socially valuable?
Such arguments seem never-ending, but science has given it a curious
twist: how can we be sure that the human being performing athletic miracles
is 100 per cent human? An odd question, to be sure, and yet not that
much off the mark. It has become a commonplace that champions may be
victorious due to chemical enhancement.
A strange paradox now threatens the world of sport: what all sports
supposedly claim to exemplify, excellence through competition, is becoming
a sham. The person that wear the giant ring or smiles as he or she holds
the silver trophy high over head, might do so because of a pill swallowed
or a liquid injected that same day, or twice the week before, or thousands
of times over the past decade.
This obvious truth has led to the banning of performance drugs. Now
the question becomes: is the banishment effective? Well, says a businessman
who live off sports fans, or the television network executives that
connect them together, test to see if drug violations occur, and if
when they do, punish the guilty. But are such tests accurate, and cannot
new drugs be devised to replace the illegal ones?
The truth is when sports drug enforcement is scrutinized the sillier
testing arguments become. For example, urine, blood samplings, or skin
scrapings, etc., can be administered before or after athletic contests,
and used as evidence for proper disciplinary action. But are drugs taken
"off season" and detectable only the first few hours or days
after consumption, a different matter? Should "off season checkers"
accompany athletes on vacation, accompany them to the bathroom, etc.?
And what happens when tests to become so time consuming athletes are
forced to check into hospitals weeks before actual competition?
Perhaps effective testing is so difficult sports should legalize all
drugs. Let athletes take whatever drugs they want in the quantities
they desire. The problem here is obvious: future athletes will grow
to a size only seen in horror films; eight foot, five hundred pound
monsters, bred and groomed for the specialty required, their wrists
and ankles covered with carefully nurtured spiked hairs like a rhinoceros
horn. Sound impossible? Compare the American football players of today
versus those of fifty years ago, and you will discover a difference
in kind threatening to overwhelm any difference in degree.
Alright, how about reducing the size of the athlete? Again we have verification
problems. You can measure for height and weight, but how do you measure
speed? An honor system? With such huge sums of money at stake, you dont
dare do that. Or, should we allow athletes to run as fast as possible
while enforcing other physical specifications? The obvious rejoinder:
what prohibits drug usage utilized for more and more speed?
Or, to continue with these absurdities, let us imagine a sport where
only a certain amount of drug use is allowed per player per game. Again
we hit the verifiability wall. Who checks for proper dosage taken? Or
when taken? Or where taken?
Here is another idea: compensate for drug use advantage: like a handicapped
horse, athletes will have sandbags stitched onto their uniforms or weights
tied around their waists. Or, the player could partially be blindfolded
. . . As you can see, it gets more and more ridiculous.
Drugs have become a conundrum to spectator sports. To do nothing about
them will result in future contests so uncertain in clarity they are
unrecognizable. Spectators will ask: what and who are we watching? How
many drugs has that competitor taken compared to the others? If consumed
in the same amount, which brands of the drug are being used? And so
on, until winning measures a difference between chemicals and not real
Since spectator sports lend to drab lives a certain vicarious excitement,
such muddling of reality is to be lamented. Spectator emotions are inherently
shallow and ephemeral (Weve all experienced that emptiness following
a favorite individual or team triumph; the tumult and shouting ended,
another competition a week, month, or next season away) but those are
better than no emotions at all. (Whether more important than anger when
discovering opponents were so juiced they could jump out of stadiums
in a single bound, is a different matter.)
A practical answer substitute mechanical athletes for human athletes.
No need for subterfuge here since nothing on the field would be human.
The all too familiar sight of a cyclist or track and field athlete at
a press conference confessing (after 25 denials the past 6 months) that
he or she had been doping with hormones intended for elephants, ("Bad
judgment. It started accidently when I dated a zoo keeper.") would
no longer be necessary. Fans would root for robots that require fuel
not drugs. The robots would be weighed and measured; defective limbs,
even heads, quickly screwed back into place by engineers and mechanics
that have replaced managers and coaches.
Scientific innovations are difficult to keep secret, so eventually the
robots would even out in quality, thus guaranteeing competition. Before
howling crowds players comprised of flexible plastics, amalgamated metals,
rivets and glue, would run, throw, hit, and kick balls as they stormed
up and down the field. The idea of winning would remain all important,
yet happily, losing would not mean to die, but to retool.
© James Morford June 2009
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