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Doping And Performance In Focus

Are all four of a horses hooves off the ground at the same time when it gallops?

They say the answer to this question was not known before Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering work in stop-motion photography in the 1870s. It doesn’t surprise me that painters might have inaccurately depicted the galloping horse, but I find it almost impossible to believe that people working closely with horses — cowboys, cavalry officers, dressage competitors — would not have known the answer to this question.

Muybridge's Galloping Horse

Freeze frame photos set to motion capture the fancy footwork of a racehorse.

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I thought of this recently when I read, in the New York Times, that some sports teams are now using new motion-capture technologies — of the sort used, for example, in the making of computer-animated films — to help train athletes. The idea is that by constructing accurate 3D models of a given athlete’s motion, they can help him (or her) avoid injury, speed up recovery, and, in general, optimize overall performance. Some baseball teams, according to the article, have secret programs in this area in the hope that they can get a competitive edge.

I want to pose a question today that may at first sight strike you as silly. Why is this sort of use of technology any better than, or in principle any different from, the use by athletes of steroids (or other so-called performance enhancing drugs)? The goals are certainly the same: to avoid injury, to speed up recovery, to optimize performance, to gain a competitive edge.

Many people have a strong conviction that drug use in sports is bad. It is bad in a special way. My question is, why?

Well, you might say, doping is prohibited in most sports (professional and amateur). It’s cheating to use a banned substance. End of story.


But this actually begs the issue (that is, it presupposes a stand on precisely what we are trying to figure out).  The question is not: Are they banned? The question is: Ought they to be banned? Presumably, steroids in sports are not bad because they are banned. They are banned because they are bad. And the question is, why?

One answer goes like this:  “Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs are harmful! They destroy your body. We reserve a special contempt for drug use in sports because sports celebrates the beauty, grace and power of the healthy, trained body. Doping kills.”

This statement is clear, and to the point. But it isn’t persuasive.

Steroids may be dangerous. But almost everything about sports, at both professional and amateur levels, is dangerous. Athletes pay a very high price to do what they do. Find me a professional athlete in his 40s who has not had four or more surgeries to repair serious damage to his knees or hips or shoulders!

Concussion, premature arthritis, multiple surgeries, chronic pain, even premature death — this is the lot of the successful athlete. It’s hard to see how steroid use, or the use of other drugs to improve performance, changes the equation.

I grant that the use of banned substances in sports is dangerous. The image of major league athletes shooting each other up in toilet stalls is appalling. But what if teams had drug specialists as part of their training programs, just as some of the teams now, apparently, have digital motion-capture graphics specialists on the payroll? Under the right conditions — that is, with the right kind of research support and medical supervision — use of drugs by athletes might actually improve their health and safety by, for example, helping their bodies cope better with the extraordinarily brutal wear and tear of professional sports.

Would we stand back from our opposition to drugs in sports if we could find a way to make them safe for the athletes, if we found that they actually improved the lives of athletes?

I think I hear you shouting (as you jump up and down): But what about the kids! Do we want to send our kids the message that to play sports at a competitive level they need to do drugs?

To this I say, let’s not lie to our kid or ourselves. A life in sports is a lot like a life in the military. You join a club. You get gear and a uniform. You have the chance to learn, travel, grow. You run the risk of killing. You run the risk of getting maimed or killed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love sports. But sports, like life, requires sacrifice.

The ideal of the gentleman amateur, like that of the renaissance man, is long dead (if it ever really lived). And forget about sound mind in sound body. Sports is a jealous mistress and demands full commitment and specialization. And hip-replacement surgery before age 40 and early onset dementia as a result of head trauma are live risks. If we aren’t squeamish about surgery and dementia, why are we squeamish about doping?

So let’s ask ourselves again: What is it about drug use in sports that seems so repellent? Why the deep moral disapprobation? Why the outrage?

Here’s what I think is going on. We think of drug use in sports as a kind of plagiarism. We don’t view an athlete’s performance under conditions of drug use as authentically his (or her) performance.

When an athlete trains, we think he improves himself, and we think that his performance flows from and gives truthful expression to this improved self. When an athlete works with scientists and uses imaging and modeling technologies to improve his performance, we think that he gains knowledge, and we believe that this knowledge enhances him as a person and as an athlete, and so we believe that he has achieved his improved performance and he deserves our admiration.

But when an athlete takes drugs, we feel, he does not so much enhance himself, as he artificially augments himself. An athlete on drugs has made himself an unnatural creature, a cyborg, a monster. The very being of such a person, we feel, is a cheat.

So the outrage that many people feel when Barry Bonds is credited with being the Home Run King stems not from the fact that he had a supposedly unfair advantage when compared to Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron. No, the source of the outrage is the feeling that Barry Bonds allegedly didn’t do anything. He didn’t hit home runs. He hit sham home runs. To reward him for his accomplishments is like rewarding a person for having assembled a stamp collection when, in fact, he inherited it.

Now consider this: Barry Bonds’ home runs are not like artificial boobs. You pay for the latter, and the surgeon does the work. The home runs, however, are not simply purchased for the price of taking the medicine. The drugs only bring about their effects when integrated intelligently into the training regimen and practice of the athlete. Bonds is one of the greatest athletes ever to play the game of baseball and that fact has nothing to do with alleged steroid use.

Performance enhancing drugs are best compared with performance enhancing footwear, or bathing suits, or training techniques. They are a tool in the arsenal of the athlete. They do not suffice, all alone, for excellent performance in the way that the plastic surgeon’s work, all on its own, suffices for the bosom.

Our sense that drugs make a sham of what we accomplish, whereas bathing suits and training regimens simply enable our enhanced performance, is without justification. As I have argued here previously, there is no sharp line to be drawn between myself (say) and what I can do, on the one hand, and my environment and what it allows and affords me, on the other. This is because, in general, there is no sharp line to be drawn between mechanisms and their enabling conditions.

Pills, like meals, sneakers and bathing caps, are on par — they are tools. And like all tools, they hold out the possibility of expanding not only our bodies, but our selves. (As well as the possibility of being abused or misused.)

For the record: I am not writing in support of doping. A strong case can be made that the quality of play in my favorite sport — baseball — has improved since the stricter enforcement of the drugs ban. But I also find the contempt and disrespect shown to athletes who are suspected of using performance enhancing drugs hypocritical and mean-spirited.

But what really motivates me to write this essay is the conviction that underlying our moralizing and outrage in the face of drugs in sports is an unreflected on and ultimately implausible conception of the self as the entirely internal, self-sufficient source of outflowing action.