Friday, August 10, 2007

cheating (part 4) : the hard way (why athletes should follow it)

note: this is part 4 of a multi-part series i'm writing to cover all of my thoughts on doping. you can check out part 3, part 2, and part 1. there'll be more parts.

There was a short essay written this past June by Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses that is one of the most compelling pieces written against cheating via performance-enhancing drugs. This essay should be required reading for every athlete, regardless of sport. What it says is one of the most profound statements regarding the nature of sport, what cheating means to sport, and why athletes should not cheat in sport (or anything else).

You can read it at:
Edwin Moses was an American track & field hurdler who won 2 gold medals at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics (400 meter hurdles). He is famous for 122 consecutive victories between 1977 and 1987, and for breaking his own world record 4 times. He has gone on to become a leader in anti-doping efforts and using sports to foster social change around the world. For reference, you can view Wikipedia: Edwin Moses and ESPN: Edwin Moses.

The essay he wrote contrasts stands against a slew of other commentaries that have arisen questioning the nature of anti-doping efforts. The past few years have witnessed the gathering of voices supporting the use of performance drugs and their legalization in athletics. Anti-doping efforts, they argue, should be eliminated. A representative sample of recent pro-drug comments includes the following:
Proponents of legalizing performance drugs tend to fall into a number of general categories, and reflect the major points in the debates over cheating in sport (for extensive summaries, reference: BBC: Religion & Ethics and IDEA: Drugs in Sport ). For the most part, the pro-drug arguments can be classified into the following categories:
  • Libertarian: athletes are individuals, and their choice of consumption is an individual choice, and so long as no harm is done to others athletes should be allowed to use performance-enhancing substances (if they choose to do so) free of 3rd party interference
  • Elitist: athletes are different, and hence subject to different rules, and so should be allowed to use performance drugs that are otherwise banned for normal people
  • Co-optation: criminalization fosters a thriving black market, encouraging practices dangerous to public health and environments supportive of crime, and so legalization of performance drugs would allow better regulation and oversite that will remove the threats to public health and reduce crime
  • Realist: drug use has always been involved in sports, and always will be, so legalization would be more reflective of the reality of performance-enhancing substances and their part in human history
All of these modes of argument, however, are predicated on an underlying presumption about the nature of sport--one that defines sport in a way that divests it from the greater aspirations of human existence. The common thread between them can be seen in the epistemologic questions to which they all ultimately lead: Why? To what end? To what purpose? What is the point of allowing athletes the choice of using drugs? What is the point of separating athletes from others in a special class that allows use of drugs? What is the point of legalizing a black market in drugs? What is the point of continuing the history of drugs?

The pro-drug arguments offer at best only superficial answers to these questions. This is because they offer answers as to the value of drugs to sport; they do not offer answers as to the reason for sport (i.e., its raison d'etre). The 2 topics are inseparable here--the entire debate is about drugs in sport, hence any consideration of performance drugs in athletic competition has to address the question as to what those drugs mean to the very idea of sport itself. That is, the answer to the issue of drug use is fundamentally tied to the question of what we want sports to be.

Review of pro-drug categories shows that their arguments are implicitly predicated on an underlying presumption that the purpose they suggest for sport is entertainment. Entertainment derived from physical activity--as in drama and excitement (i.e., just what happens to competition when human performance is pushed); as in satiating curiousity and manifesting hypotheticals (i.e., just how much the human body can be pushed: how fast, how high, how far, how strong).

Ultimately, it is through the paradigm of sports as entertainment that pro-drug proponents base their arguments. Libertarians argue athletes should have the freedom to use drugs, to encourage the spectacle of more intense competition. Elitists perspectives claim that athletes should be treated differently from others in regards to drugs, so that they can produce more compelling drama. Co-optation supporters calls for decriminalization of drugs, so that athletes can be freed from concerns of health or crime to showcase greater performances. Realists hold that sport should be surrendered to drugs, so that it can continue the historical lineage of pageantry of athletic expression. Everything is framed within the perspective of aiding athletes and sports so that they can provide spectators with more drama, more excitement, and more records to be reset and rebroken.

It is strangely ironic how this is a reflection of the Olympic creed (Citius, Altius, Fortius--or, in English: Faster, Higher, Stronger). Unfortunately, it's a perverse distortion, and is a misdirection of the words. The Olympic creed, much like the Olympic movement from its original incarnation in ancient Greece to its modern incarnation of the current era, views sport as more than just a spectacle of athletic performance, but as an expression of greater ideals of human nature; that is, it is not just about being faster, higher, or stronger in body, but also in mind and spirit. Reference: IOC, USOC, Deseret News,, Maps of the World, Wikipedia: Pierre de Coubertin.

It is this sentiment that is embodied by Edwin Moses' essay, and it is this perspective that is expressed so passionately in his arguments. Speaking with the voice of an Olympic champion, and with the wisdom of an athlete wizened by the perspective of years, he holds the position that performance-enhancing drugs run contrary to the entire purpose of sport, and that whatever benefits they bring are an insult to the credo of athletics.

Sports, he suggests, is about ideals. It is not about entertainment. It is about character, not about physical achievement. It is about development of the mind and the spirit, not just the body. It is, at its core, about fulfilling the aspirations of human nature, and not providing voyeuristic drama or satisfying base curiousities about the human body. Sport, at its best, is about manifesting the best aspects of humanity and the human condition. It is, in its most beatific moments, about the ideals we want to express as human beings.

In his essay, Edwin Moses states this firmly:

"The sleazy brawn of doping degrades the noble ideals of sport and its true heroes: dedication, integrity, self-sacrifice, honesty, fairness, courage — all working together to fuel the desire and ability to compete, excel and win."

The contrast between such an noble assertions of ideals versus the cynical justifications of entertainment reveals the debate over performance drugs for what it truly is--a conflict over the fundamental question of human nature: Who are we? What do we want to be?

The answer to this existentialist question determines the direction of the debate. Sport is a reflection of who we are as athletes. How we train and how we compete in sport is a reflection of how we live in life, and in so doing is a reflection of who we are and who we want to be as human beings.

If we are about the satiation of baser instincts for diversionary pastimes; if we are about short-term gratification of physical senses; if we are about solely physical development and nothing else; if we are unconcerned with human nature and its progression towards ideals; then sport is simply a form of entertainment to occupy our attention and time, and there are no ethics barring its manipulation (i.e., via performance-enhancing substances) for such an end.

If, however, we are about the advancement of human nature; if we are about our context in the mystery that is life and creation; if we are about development of more than the body but mind and soul; if we are concerned about the fulfillment of ideals so that they are made real through us; then sport is not simply entertainment, it is not just a diversion. Sport is then about the constant, neverending, continual struggle of humanity to transcend itself and become something greater than its constituent elemental parts, and ethics are the guides to the ideals sport strives to achieve.

The difference in implications is profound. One way (the easy way) accepts the human condition as it is, and accepts humanity as being only humanity, and proceeds with the living of life accordingly--with no meaning beyond the senses and the now. It is the way of cynicism, it is the way of nihilism, it is the way of the profane. The other way (the hard way), in contrast, is about refusing to accept things as they are, and expecting the human condition as being better and humanity as being more, and proceeds with the living of life with the purpose of exploration and fulfillment of its full meaning. It is the way of hope, it is the way of ascendance, it is the way more divine.

And it is the latter way--the hard way--that makes the hours of work and sweat and sacrifice and commitment and dedication and diligence and discipline all worthwhile. It is this that makes the struggles with heartache and disappointment and anguish and sorrow and pain and failure and defeat so bearable.

Because it is only through such things that we gain the experience, wisdom, perspective, insight, understanding, and maturity that mark our growth in mind and spirit--growth to match and to deserve the blessings that are our bodies. It is only through these things that we can become better than we were before--and as good as we were meant to become. It is only through these things that we as athletes advance the ideals of human nature, and confirm the covenant of all humanity with hope--for itself, for creation, and for the future.

It is hard. Sometimes. Often. Always. It is very hard.

But the easy way means surrender to things as they are, without the prospect of anything better. The easy way means giving up on the true purpose of sport, and the true spirit of the athlete. The easy way means defeat.

The hard way means progression to things as they should be, with the hope of things far greater. The hard way means upholding the aspirations of sport, and the courage of the athlete. The hard way means victory, of the only kind that really matters: humanity.

If the link to Edwin Moses' essay does not work, the full text is below:

Doping isn't the only way to the top for athletes
By Edwin Moses

Special to The Times

June 12, 2007

Like the parabolic mirror that ignites the flame in Olympia every two years, the avenging spirit of sport recently has focused its heat upon yellow jerseys and ski boots. Now I want to add my own fire to the mix.

Since May 23: Doping confessions on the part of Danish cycling champion Bjarne Riis. Telenovela-like EPO-related arbitration hearings of American cyclist Floyd Landis. The $1-million fine issued by the International Olympic Committee upon the Austrian Olympic Committee for its role in the 2006 Turin blood-doping scandal. Lifetime Olympic bans placed on 14 Austrian ski team officials. Cross-country skiers from Kazakhstan and Russia banned for two years. Three German Olympic doctors with responsibilities to amateur skiing, cycling and Paralympic teams suspended for providing EPO to athletes under their care.

I could also mention last summer's saga wherein Marion Jones escaped with a negative B-sample and Justin Gatlin bit the dust. Or shall we go back to the 2004 World Track Championships, an annual meet from which other BALCO clients were subsequently banned?

The roster of doping-associated stakeholders across the globe — not only athletes but federations, training institutes, coaches, corporate sponsors and national Olympic bodies — is a shameful who's who in the world of sports.

At the same time, Victor "BALCO" Conte is again open (legitimately?) for business — trumpeting this month to the Times of London that parents of kids with dreams of elite-level performance should "steer [the kids] in other directions" if they don't want them to take drugs, simply because "at some point they'll get to the level where they are told they have no choice but to use them."

Pitifully, Conte's corrupt mentality is supported by entries on sports blogs, in which great performers of the past (myself included) are unjustifiably maligned by a skeptical generation of so-called fans ignorant of the plain feasibility and indisputable effectiveness of honest, hard-core training techniques.

With only 15 months to go before the Olympic torch comes to rest in Beijing, it's time for me and all other clean world-class athletes from every sport to speak loudly against the false claim that doping is simply "the way it is" and the only way to the top.

To reach the pinnacle of my event, the 400-meter hurdles — and to stay there without ceding victory, as I did, for nearly a decade — I did not need or want to use performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, I trained smart and hard to get to and stay at the top.

Over more than 10 years, I logged a minimum of 15,000 miles on the track, beaches and cross-country trails; followed a strict diet tailored to high performance and recovery (a regimen I follow to this day), and focused my complete attention on the task at hand, living and breathing the entire training process every single day.

I invented a training regimen that included stretching, flexibility development and dynamic exercise techniques. And I was willing to deal with — for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years — the intense and relentless discomfort that comes from training mercilessly, two or three times a day. Through sheer focus and willpower, I made sure that the harder and more painful it got, the faster I became.

By definition, the elite level of sport is not open to just anyone — only the very rare individual will succeed. But to suggest that drugs are a de facto key to world-class victories is a lie. I delivered 122 consecutive victories and four world records on the basis of sweat and refined skill, period.

The sleazy brawn of doping degrades the noble ideals of sport and its true heroes: dedication, integrity, self-sacrifice, honesty, fairness, courage — all working together to fuel the desire and ability to compete, excel and win.

Counsel to all would-be champions: in training for competition, there are no shortcuts. Anyone who tells you differently is selling pure compromise.

Since 2000, I've served as chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy and the associated Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. The core work of the academy is to use sport as a tool for positive social change, with a focus on the needs of the most disenfranchised and vulnerable children.

The values of honest sportsmanship, a level playing field, clean competition and sheer passion for the game that Laureus represents, and that we hold up to these children and our own as flares of opportunity and hope, are the values that must propel me and others like me to speak out loudly against the systems and stakeholders that enable and sustain the crooked work of doping.

In 1984, I was honored to open the L.A. Games by bearing the Olympic torch into the Coliseum and leading the recitation of the Olympic Oath, "in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and for the honor of our teams." If we now fail to take a stand for sport as we love it and once practiced it, our legacy will be scorched indeed.

No comments: