June 24, 2007

Doping and Professional Athletics

Posted in Culture at 7:26 pm by ndsmith

This is an issue that I have thought about for a long time. When I was a developing swimmer, I remember the clean-up in the IOC over doping in swimming and other Olympic sports. Now the fruits of baseball’s inglorious rise to prominence in the late ’90’s are coming to term: Sammy Sosa passed the 600 home runs mark and Barry Bonds is closing in quickly on Hank Aaron’s record. However, I had not crystallized an opinion on this one until Boston’s sports guru Dan Shaughnessy recently wrote an article that prompted my thinking.

Sports columnists are paid good money to state opinions and stir up discussion. What is more, Shaughnessy was in good company when he roundly criticized Bonds as a “cheater” and someone unworthy of the all-time home run crown: Bonds received a horrid reception at Fenway, so far he has gotten a split decision in press coverage and an icy response from Commish Selig and even the great Aaron. And Shaughnessy has a way with words. The first paragraph reads:

Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, Barry Bonds — No. 25 in your program, No. 2 on the all-time home run list, and a Big Zero in the hearts of those who love baseball and its most cherished records.

The “moral” stand on this issue and the romanticism of a earlier time that comes with it are compelling and tough to criticize without looking like a libertine or a relativist. But I think this is the wrong way to go; this is the wrong stand to take. Shaughnessy is tentatively aware of the weakness of his own argument, inserting this admission at the end of a list of the many sins of baseball’s doped-up era:

And those of us in the press box celebrated the home run chase of ’98 without challenging its authenticity.

Despite the fact that Shaughnessy is forced to append such an admission to the end of a harangue of Bond’s moral right to the home run crown, he does not see the implications of his own thinking. What he says is that, in effect, the steroids issue is systemic, it arose because of the complacency of the sport’s oversight bodies and the capability of science, technology and money to determine athletic competition. This is the present state of affairs. Although only anecdoctal, I believe that doping was and is pervasive is some sports. I have heard that an acquaintance of mine who achieved a measure of success in professional cycling on the fringes of the Europeans circuit has said that at a certain level “everyone was doping.” A more universal story, perhaps, is told in one of Oliver Stonde’s better films, Any Given Sunday. At least as Stone tells the story, every measure of medical technology is routinely imposed on athletes in order to increase performance. This state of affairs lends to his depiction of the locker room as a cross between triage and manufacturing. Once he sets this scene, it is no great leap from the routine sorts of medical intervention (cortisone, pain killers, etc.) to banned substances.

There is no argument about whether or not we should stringently test professional and competitive amateur athletes and we should strive to eradicate the doping infrastructure from athletics. The problem is that when we make Barry Bonds the icon of our disapproval with the current state of affairs in professional sports, we are, in effect, punishing the most exemplary player of a certain era as a token of our disapproval of that era. Even though Big Pappi got himself in a bit of trouble for his generous appraisal of Bonds, I think he had it right when he said that no amount of steroids can give you a pure left-handed swing like Bonds’ (and Pappi is one who could judge). Barry Bonds has always been a pure hitter. How many home runs belong to steroids and how many came from his natural talent is a subject for academic debate. But why boo the guy who just happened to be the best at what a lot of guys were doing and what a lot of other guys were happy not to know too much about?

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