Gods, drugs, and the purity of sport

The internet is abuzz with the current shitstorm surrounding USAW. I speak of nothing other than the sanction by USADA (the US Anti-Doping Agency) of a couple of American weightlifters for using banned substances. For those of you curious to know the identities of the athletes and the substances, feel free to pop over to http://www.usada.org/sanctions/. At present (mid-April) only one athlete is listed, but if the other athlete’s coach is correct then it is only a matter of time before the other athlete is listed.

The source of my concern is not the test results. Some people use performance enhancers–banned or otherwise–and some don’t. If you use the banned stuff there’s a chance you will be caught, and the vast majority of people are well aware of this. Even if you don’t use them there’s a fair chance you will be caught for something, as the list of USADA- and WADA-prohibited substances now reads like the phonebook.

The issue is the horde of holier-than-thou, self-christened saints who are now raising all kinds of interweb hell, preaching their gospel of well-worn cliches against the dangers and disgraces of drug usage. As can be expected anytime someone fails to meet a set of abstract and arbitrary moral standards, the self-righteous are loudly beating their breasts in opposition.

The range of sentiments is broad, and there is hardly time or interest for a point by point consideration of all the vitriol currently floating about. But there are two with which I take special umbrage: the so-called “purity of sport” bullshit, and the claim that “god-given talent” and “hard work” are somehow superior to and/or mutually exclusive with performance enhancing substances.

The purity of sport claim is so absurd it is hard to believe anyone uses that argument seriously anymore. To assert that something as filthy and degenerate as sport is “pure” is like extolling the “purifying” virtues of war; only a fascist or someone with no grip on reality would make those sorts of claims. Sport is doing whatever you can to defeat another person or team. It is backroom deals, million dollar contracts in the face of poverty, abuses of power, discrimination. It is the best and worst of people boiled down to their essences, unfiltered by the demands of polite society. It is a breeding ground for every depraved action the world knows.

4,000-year-old egypitan depravity/sport

In short, sport is life, and like life it is neither inherently pure nor impure. It cannot be distilled to a heartwarming movie and sure as shit cannot be summed up in a simple dichotomy of cheaters and non-cheaters. To look at the history of organized sport is to look at a microcosm of civilization, with all of its ugliness as well as all of its beauty. We need only dig into the last century to see sports filled with racism, sexism, classicism, every conceivable form of exclusion. Was sport pure then? Maybe these internet blowhards are really after something more malicious than a drug-free sport…

It is worth repeating: sport is life, which in the end is all there is. As such, sport is subject to all the hideousness and glory and absolute banality of things like going to work or walking your dog. The only place where you can find true purity is in mathematics. Search for purity in sport, or anywhere else–religion, politics, the prom queen–and you’re only going to be disappointed.

apparently, people have been confusing this with "sport"

Following closely on the heels of the “purity” garbage are claims of competing with nothing more than “god-given talent” and “work ethic”. Those sorts of arguments make the purity bullshit almost look palatable by comparison. I’d rather listen all day to someone argue for the purity of sport than hear one minute of some religious fanatic claim that their god–the god of their choosing, who is presumably the one only they recognize–has bestowed his gifts (for the gods of such people are always male) on certain blessed individuals for the express purpose of drug-free athletic achievement. What if the other competitors don’t recognize your god? What if they recognize no god at all? What if their god is so concerned with winning that he/she/it doesn’t care what substances athletes put in their bodies?

"saturn devouring his son", by francisco goya (c. 1820)
does this look like a god who cares what you do to win? presumably he's happy as long as he's eating and you're not trying to overthrow him.

It is perhaps no surprise that the claim of “god-given talent” so often comes from people lucky enough to be born in a country with things like clean water, sanitation, a food supply that is generally safe, and first world medicine. Presumably the people born in worse situations, or those unfortunate enough to be born without athleticism or without even the health to live past their first birthday, were simply not praying hard enough in their respective wombs. And it wasn’t too long ago that if your “god-given talents” didn’t include a penis or white skin then you were pretty much relegated to spectating, as far as sports were concerned. There are still places where this is the case for women.

As for hard work, drugs and supplements offer no substitute. Performance enhancers, like sport and like anything, have benefits and drawbacks. They are neither good nor evil. Hard work is neither good nor evil. It is not a virtue in and of itself. If you spent all day piling rocks in front of your neighbor’s door you have worked quite hard, but probably not for good (unless your neighbor deserves it for some reason). Some people on drugs work quite hard, some don’t. It is no different for those who are not on drugs.

This is in no way a defense of athletes who use performance enhancing substances. But to use the terminology of those who so often take the holier-than-thou approach, they’re sinners just like the rest of us, and the unexamined claim that their version of sport or work (or god) is any less pure or worthwhile than someone else’s is ridiculous. Some people play dirty, and eventually it is enough to get some people caught; no doubt plenty of others have played dirty–including some of those currently screaming the loudest–and the only thing differentiating the two is whether they were caught.

Maybe it is time for a hard look at ourselves and our rules. A moment of introspection and self-reflection, not just for those of us in America–the most moral people in the world, in our eyes–but for the entire international sport community. Science is here to stay, and to adhere to an antiquated and fictitious notion of “pure” sport is only doing damage to sport, and costing us millions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. Drugs are not the answer; only a fool would think that. But neither is our current course of action, with regard to drugs or money in sport or almost anything sport-related. But I suppose that a world unable to pull its collective shit together in any facet of life is unlikely to do so for sports, either. The self-christened saints will continue preaching, the rest of the athletic world will continue doing whatever it needs to win, and the majority of athletes will continue to bear the consequences, regardless of their situation.

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11 Responses to Gods, drugs, and the purity of sport

  1. Pingback: Gods, drugs, and the purity of sport | Decadence and Depravity: Tales of Weightlifting, Food, and Everything Else

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