Winning, Cheating Have Ancient Roots

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, August 3, 2007

Maybe we shouldn't ask athletes to live up to ideals that, let's face it, are unsupported by the chronically weak performance of human nature. Maybe it's time to decriminalize performance-enhancing drugs, in view of the fact that the first drug cheat was an ancient Greek and runners brought sport-doping into the modern age in 1904 by dosing themselves with strychnine.

Our Air Force gives fighter jocks "go-pills" to get them through long missions, but we don't refuse to call them heroes because they're on speed. So what's this strange amnesia that causes us to seek purity in athletes? Why should they have to meet a higher moral standard than soldiers? Call me naive.

Many of us are cringing at the prospect that Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron's home run record, starting with yours truly, because of allegations he used performance enhancers. A record should be joyful, but this one makes us regretful. Why should Bonds's personal health choices matter to us so much? Because he forces us to address head-on the possibility that sports have become utterly riddled with doping. If so, then legalizing performance enhancers may be the most honest thing we could do. But it doesn't make anyone happy to say so.

What's the job of an athlete really? It is to seek the limits of the human body, for our viewing pleasure. Athletes are astronauts of the physique, explorers. Some of them choose to explore by making human guinea pigs out of themselves. So maybe we should quit assigning any ethical value to what they do, and simply enjoy their feats as performance artists. Virtue was another notion dreamed up by the Greeks, only they were a lot less confused about what they meant by the term. Their word for virtue could also be accurately translated as simply "excellence." As for the word "amateur," it didn't exist to them at all.

The ancient Olympic champions were professionals who competed for huge cash prizes as well as olive wreaths, lived on the public dole and were sometimes recruited by competing cities seeking status. Most forms of what we would call cheating were perfectly acceptable to them, save for game-fixing. There is evidence that they gorged themselves on meat -- not a normal dietary staple of the Greeks -- and experimented with herbal medications in an effort to enhance their performances. Olympic scholar William Blake Tyrell, author of "The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture," has observed: "Winning was everything. If they thought a rhinoceros horn would help them win, they would have ground it up."

According to Charles Yesalis, professor of health and human development at Penn State and a longtime scholar of performance enhancement, the ancient Greek athletes also drank wine potions, used hallucinogens and ate animal hearts or testicles in search of potency. "We've never had clean sport," he says.

Doping is not a modern art. It's just the medicine that's new. As a recent story in National Geographic pointed out, performance enhancement grew with chemistry in the mid-19th century. Athletes choked down sugar cubes dipped in ether, brandy laced with cocaine, nitroglycerine and amphetamines. In that context, the current scourges of steroids and blood boosters are merely a sequential progression.

Opponents of legalizing performance enhancers argue against it on two main grounds: 1) it would open up a doping arms race in which athletes who could afford the best drugs would have an unfair advantage, and 2) doping is injurious to the health of the athletes. But the arms race is already on -- and it has been for centuries. That genie is out of the bottle, and there's no putting it back. As for the ill effects of performance enhancers, there is a very strong argument to be made that legalization would actually help in risk reduction, make it easier to control the types of risks athletes are taking.

Furthermore, it's impossible to draw the line any more between what is an artificial enhancement and what is a natural one. Is there a real difference between voluntary LASIK eye surgery, a small controlled dose of testosterone or EPO, or sleeping in an altitude tent that produces the same effect of EPO only without the needle?

The next step in the sequential progression is gene therapy -- athletes will be able to inject genes that build muscle. At which point steroids will seem as crude as sugar cubes soaked in ether.

The stark truth is that great athletes are fundamentally very different from you and me. They are freaks of nature, with uncanny hand-eye coordination or peripheral vision randomly assigned in the gene pool. They can seem nearly a different species. And they are quite often profoundly cold elitists whose moral code is different from ours, too. To many of them, the performance is all and what they find unnatural is to leave some physical possibility untapped. "They're highly paid entertainers, and they get paid to win and that's what they're trying to do," Yesalis says.

In an odd way, legalizing performance enhancers might restore some candor to what we're watching. It would end a charade and help us sort out truly criminal behavior from that which merely offends our idealism. But personally, every time I come to that conclusion, I find myself backing away from it, reluctant to say it's the definitive answer.

The price of legalization is that we give up our ideals about athletes once and for all, and that's a painful prospect. We gave up our ideals about actors, singers and politicians and various other kinds of professionals a long time ago, but that doesn't mean we enjoyed doing it. "If there was drug available for journalists, professors or lawyers, they would take it," Yesalis theorizes. "Why do you think it would be just athletes?" That's true. But it's a sorry fact.

Legalization is not likely to happen, because most of us prefer illusion to reality. Games are stories we tell ourselves, and as such, we seem to need some moral content in them, as opposed to the capricious traumas, sad erosions and ambiguities of every day reality. Yesalis likens performance enhancers to the special effects in a film.

"When you go to a movie, you don't want to see how the movie was made, or the special effects are done," he says. "The drama plays out and it has a black or white ending. You just want to be entertained and happy or sad your team won."

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