I was thinking back to when Lance Armstrong went down – Lost his seven Tour de France titles, lost his aura, lost his place in the pantheon of sporting heroes. He was one of the greatest champions that cycling ever saw, and then suddenly he was just a cheat, because he taken an unfair advantage through performance enhancing drug. Of course his long-held denial and the many lies to protect his image, did not help his cause.
Sometimes I think athletes convince themselves that they aren’t cheating. As Seinfeld’s George Costanza once said “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” And it’s understandable in sport given the difference between a hero and a villain is so vast, but what determines that difference can be so small. The difference between a Carl Lewis and a Ben Johnson may just hinge on a strong façade and a bit of luck in not getting caught (or misfortune in getting caught) taking steroids or testosterone or whatever it may be. Perhaps Ben Johnson was too good in the 1988 Olympics and that was his undoing. If he’d only won by a few metres instead of ten, had only knocked a touch off the world record instead smashing it to smithereens, then who knows where he’d be today. If he had not been tested that day, or was using a substance not yet known or hard to trace, then we may still think of Ben Johnson as a great athletic hero – they way Carl Lewis is perceived. Perhaps Carl was just lucky. He certainly had some positive tests during the Olympic trials covered up by the US team, which allowed him to race to second, and then take Gold when Johnson was disqualified. The difference between a champion and a cheat can be more than just how they played the game.
The modern professional sporting world is filled with situations where champions are made by different reasons. Some of those reasons fair and some not so fair. There are certainly many instances where one athlete has what appears to be an unfair advantage over other athletes, most notably with access to training, equipment and money. We all know how much a good coach can inspire a team or player. Is it unfair that some teams or sportspeople can access this coach and others not?
The Australian AIS was the envy of the world in the 90s and it led to Australia dominating in rugby, cricket, and becoming a force in football. Much of the funding was meant for the Sydney Olympics and as a result Australian soared to its highest ever rank in the medal tally in Sydney and then again in Athens four years later. The Chinese did the same for Beijing and the British for London. Huge money was spent on giving their athletes the best chances of winning. It meant a great deal for these countries to do well at their home Olympics. They wanted to inspire their people and create a great event. There were economic benefits of success as well and the money, support and training roared in.
Clearly the athletes on those Olympic teams had an unfair advantage over their rivals at those games. They had better access to training, better coaches, better nutrition, and better performance enhancing technology.
They also had more money, which meant more athletes could take on training full-time, concentrating on one thing only – winning the gold. More training equates to more success. Athletes funded by Government could dedicate their lives entirely to their chosen sport. Athletes living in poorer places or countries that put less money into sports could not hope to compete, creating an unfair advantage in favour of those countries prepared to pay more for sporting success – Rowers in state of the art boats could leave behind those using basic wooden ones. Swimmers using the latest space age swimming suits, on strict diets and coaching regimes, using vitamins and recovery drinks and protein powder for muscle growth could annihilate those without such assistance, let alone swimmers from some parts of the world without proper access to a pool.
Now in Lance Armstrong’s case, the general consensus seems to be that we ought not to celebrate a champion who had used an unfair advantage to get there. In his case, by using performance enhancing drugs (EPO) and blood doping. We accept that cyclists can train in altitude to increase their red blood cell count, but then they cannot take this same blood out of their bodies, store it, and inject it back in during a race. This seems to be the point where the line is drawn: The Natural advantage of the altitude training versus the unnatural advantage of removing that blood and storing it for a rainy day.
In all sport we celebrate the champion that had an unfair advantage by their country of birth or their access to training and equipment. Without even conscious awareness, we celebrate the sport-star that soared to the top of their field with the aid of an unfair advantage brought by wealth. Are these advantages natural or unnatural? Is it a natural advantage to be given Government funding for training and access to the best coaches, medical treatment and equipment? To me these sound decidedly unnatural. They are a symptom of the professionalisation of sport, of the corporate interests which have taken hold of many sports and turned athletes into celebrities plying their trade in front of huge crowds, their pockets filled with gold, heroes of the people like the charioteers of Rome. I don’t think we wish to face-up to the advantage that this coveys on some over others. It is accepted as inherent to sport in a capitalist system. Money will invade sport and create classes of athletes as it invades every aspect of society.
Of course athletes will use any advantage they can when there is so much money in sport. When the difference between succeeding and failing is so small, but the outcome of success is wealth and fame, and the outcome of failure is to start again in another field, poor and at the bottom.
So why the sudden uproar when it comes to the use of performance enhancing drugs? Sure it’s an unfair advantage which not all athletes wish to choose, one that gives them a competitive edge over their rivals that don’t dope, but so are all advantages – natural or otherwise – from protein powder to sport drinks, from hyperbaric chambers to strapping tape. At what point does it become cheating? When does the unfair advantage become unacceptable?
The easy answer is that performance enhancing drugs are unacceptable because they are outlawed by that sport – because the rules forbid it, their use is unacceptable. Many performance enhancing substances are being invented right now and are yet to be banned. Is an athlete a cheat by taking these before they are banned? And if they are not a cheat, but they would become one when the substance is inevitably banned, then there is a moral question that arises from using that substance for competitive advantage. Did slavery only become a bad thing when it was made illegal or was the action itself wrong despite it being allowed by law? There is a moral issue to be evaluated in such circumstances, not just a question of what is allowed.
Is the difference between a champion or a cheat, a question of right and wrong or just the luck of the draw? A simple question of whether something is allowed by a sporting body or not, or whether they test for it. If so, cycling, which has rigorous drug testing, is more likely to have cheats than tennis, which doesn’t. A user of steroids who plays baseball, which tacitly allowed steroids use for many years, can be a sports star, while a swimmer using steroids is banned and labelled cheat. It is a bit like the freedom fighter versus the terrorist. There is not much difference between the two if you look at what they are actually doing – fighting to overthrow a government, tyrannical or otherwise. It’s just how we perceive them at that time, and if they win and re-write history they can be whoever they want to be. So too sportspeople. They are defined by their era. Who they were and what was accepted at that time. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to judge Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson and others and accept that athletes will use whatever advantage they can get away with, just as countries will use their wealth and technology to win in sports and Olympic events that matter to them.
We live in an era where winning is everything, and coming second isn’t an option. Where winning is being a champion, and being a cheat is when you get caught.