Faster, higher, stronger

The major talking point in the lead up to the Seoul Olympics was Carl Lewis versus Ben Johnson. Pre-1987, Johnson could not get past Lewis. In the year leading up to the 1988 Games, Johnson beat Lewis twice.

Being anything but a gracious loser, Lewis suggested after one of those races that Johnson must have false-started without being detected, and went on to say that he was not at his best due to injury.

Not long after, Lewis made statements that implied some of his peers were taking performance enhancing drugs. This created a buzz within the athletics community and the growing animosity between Lewis and his peers, and in particular Johnson, was the platform on which anticipation escalated. Athletics’ Blue Riband event was to be a showdown for the ages.

The event itself lived up to the hype. Lewis could not have done any more than he did; Johnson was simply awesome, setting a new world record of 9.79 seconds.

Three days later, Lewis was somewhat vindicated when Johnson tested positive to a banned substance. There was a temporary air of disbelief as people tried to digest the news and then there was global condemnation with Johnson leaving Seoul in disgrace.

Because the race had already been run however, it was etched into my mind. The exhilaration I experienced at the time was not tempered at all by Johnson’s indiscretion.

If anything, I started to wonder how much “faster, higher, stronger” men could go with chemical assistance.

In the 1990s, Chinese female swimmers suddenly became elite and sported bodies of which the vast majority of this planet’s men would be proud. Despite claims that they were drug-free, the swimmers collectively tested positive to banned substances on dozens of occasions and the Chiese were left red-faced. But whilst there was condemnation in a sporting context, there was also a sense of intrigue amongst the general populace.

In the mid 1990s, a friend of a mate of mine wanted to ply his cycling talents in Europe and pursue a career as a professional rider.

“If I go though, I have to get on the juice,” he lamented to my mate. It was an open secret that drugs were part and parcel of the European cycling scene. In 1998, the problem was exposed publicly in sensational fashion when banned substances were found by the French police in Festina’s team cars. The team doctor was later charged. This did not seem to deter the crowds however, who continued to turn up in record numbers year on year to witness what, to the ordinary man, was simply an unbelievable feat of endurance.

Marion Jones ‘came clean’ seven years after the Sydney Olympics, serving time in jail as a result. And yet my enduring memories are of how her mere presence intimidated her peers and excited the crowd. Her performances in the 2000 Games were brilliant.

The fact is that transgressions uncovered after an event cannot undo the memories and emotions of said events. Melbourne Storm was stripped of a Premiership but they and their fans had already enjoyed the party.

In recent years, I’ve suggested somewhat wryly to people that maybe there should be an alternative athletics event with a “no (legal) substances barred” policy. Something about men and women doing the impossible appeals to the imagination, which is probably why comic book super heroes have always appealed to so many. Hell, I’d love to be Spiderman, Mr Fantastic, or the Flash. Even the Hulk was cool in the latest Avengers flick.

I’m not sure if many people have had similar thoughts; I have assumed not. But maybe I assumed wrongly and maybe it’s people like me whom former UCI president, Hein Verbruggen, was refering to in a discussion he had in 1998 with former WADA president, Dick Pound. This discussion was recounted by Pound in a recent episode of Four Corners titled, “The world according to Lance”.

POUND: I said ‘Hein, you guys have a huge problem in your sport’. He said ‘what do you mean?’ I said ‘the doping’. ‘Well’, he said, ‘that’s really the fault of the spectators’. And I said ‘I beg your pardon, it’s the spectators’ fault?’ Well’ he said, ‘yes, if they were happy with the Tour de France at 25K, you know we’d be fine. But’, he said, ‘if they want it at 41 and 42’, he said, ‘the riders have to prepare’. And I just shook my head and said ‘well, you heard it here first, you got a big problem’.

Verbruggen’s assertion that spectators were to blame for the drug culture was somewhat of a ‘cop out’ and reeked a little of the “up yours” attitude that the UCI was and is still perceived to have. The reality is that the cyclists did whatever it took to be the best because being the best made them kings.

That said, spectators provide the wealth and adulation that make it worth being a king, and without doubt, spectators are drawn to the extraordinary. And performance enhancing drugs have helped athletes deliver the extraordinary.

Whilst I’m not sure the world would openly welcome an “Olympics” which allowed the chemically assisted, I’m certain the event would be a huge success.

As human beings, we are fascinated by the things we do not have or are unable to do. We often experience those things vicariously. We are voyeurs too, and have a penchant for the morbid. Gossip magazines thrive because of sensationalism and YouTube is a revelation.

If someone uploads their sky diving video, they may get a couple of hundred views, most of which will be by accident. If, however, someone posts a sky diving video where a parachute doesn’t open, there are likely to be millions of views. Mixed marshal arts, aka MMA, is the fastest growing spectator sport in the world despite the brutality which, at times, borders on the macabre.

Watching men run 100 metres in seven seconds would be insane. A long jump of over 10 metres would be breathtaking. A weightlifter the size of three ‘Arnies’ would be awe inspiring. Sure, some may have 3 legs and others two heads, but that would add to the spectacle. Some may sweat black ooze, or even explode mid event but what drama? It would make for brilliant television.

Jokes aside, maybe the time has come to take a different perspective on the use of “performance enhancing drugs” in sports.

Sebastien Vettel is leading the Formula One driver’s championship at the moment. But take him out of the Red Bull team and send him to HRT and the odds are that he would not be. Whether he wins the Championship or not has less to do with his driving ability and more to do with the car he drives. The car is performance enhancing, yet no one questions it.

Golfers and tennis players of today are superior to their predecessors for a host of reasons, not the least of which being advancements in technology. The equipment itself is performance enhancing. Many will argue that all players have access to the same equipment and therefore the equipment itself provides no unfair advantage.

But is that not an argument that could be used in defence of Lance Armstrong? If he or his team were the only ones “on drugs”, then winning seven Tour de Frances is unremarkable given the unfair advantage. If we assume, however, that the use of banned substances was widespread, then winning seven Tours is an unbelievable feat. He was the best of the best on a level playing field.

It appears to me that the issue with drugs is not so much that they provide an ‘unfair’ advantage, but that they provide an ‘unnatural’ one. I imagine there are many top athletes who will push their bodies to the limit to achieve ultimate success, but will never go to the level of doping because of its side effects.

Many will be quick to point out that there is also the fact that certain substances and techniques are illegal, not just in a sporting context, but also in a social context; that provides an even bigger deterrent for top athletes who are also law abiding citizens.

But what of those substances and techniques that are legal? EPO is not illegal. Many steroids are not illegal. Yes, users must be registered and usage prescribed and yes, they present risks, but isn’t that a choice for each individual to make?

We as spectators want our sporting heroes to keep doing the impossible; to keep getting “faster, higher, stronger”. We want heroes who capture our imaginations and send our spirits soaring. Performance enhancing substances can help them do that. Only those who are prepared to do whatever it takes will use them, but the willingness to “do whatever it takes” is a key attribute of success; it is a key attribute of heroes.

On a final note, the argument against performance enhancing substances is that they increase a user’s level of whatever it is the substance enhances beyond what is perceived to be an acceptable level.

That is deemed to be unfair.

But every human being is a walking chemical factory with some outproducing others. Those that produce higher levels of those hormones that are linked to physical performance have an ‘unfair’ advantage, even if ‘natural’.

Caster Semenya is a case in point.

If the bodies that govern sports are really serious about ensuring athletes are not unfairly disadvantaged, then they should mimic the Paralympics in a fashion and break each event into classes determined by hormone levels.

For instance, there could be a ‘low level testerone’ class, a ‘mid level testerone’ class, and a ‘high level testerone’ class. Semenya would be probably run in the Womens’ 800m – High Level Testerone class.

Ridiculous? Seemingly so.

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