Finally... a day off work. The Roots come out of the Cambridge SoundWorks speakers buried on the cluttered desk, Illadelph Halflife spinning through my brain. "It Just Don't Stop"... and indeed it don't stop. With a narrow victory over an illustrious opponent to take over this group's crown, the challengers are all coming out of the woodwork. They're beating at my door, fighting to take down the champ to raise their own profile. I sit here under the staircase, typing frantically away, a puncher swinging on pure adrenaline. Were I to put a picture here, the April 1968 cover of Esquire would fit as well as any. I feel like the Waco Kid...
Then one day I hear "Reach for it, mister." I spun around, and there I was, standing face to face with a six-year-old kid. Well, I just laid down my guns and walked away... Little basta-d shot me in the as-! So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle, and I've been there ever since.
Except it's not whiskey in the glass right now but tequila... which has me wondering if I could be flagged for using performance-enhancing substances in this ongoing battle to churn out volumes of writing. What, honestly, should constitute a banned product? As a citizen journalist who has long covered cycling and other international sports, I have tapped out too many articles about this or that doping offense. Yet all the while I sit here, fueled by alcohol and caffeine and nicotine and other various chemical compounds, writing about whether or not an athlete is engaging in improprieties. Is this pure hypocrisy?
It is easy enough to say that the use of steroids, human growth hormone, testosterone and blood boosters are inherently against the spirit of athletic competition. After all, how can putting things into one's body which could cause potential harm or even fatality be consistent with the myth that athletes are exhibiting the best possible physical performance of the human form? Yet any look at a serious banned list (and no, Major League Baseball, you don't have a serious banned list, nor does any other of the major professional American sports leagues... yet) indicates that far more than merely the "cream" and the "clear" and "greenies" are banned...
A cyclist gets popped for puffing his inhaler a few too many times... while his sprinting counterpart nearly got away with packing his nose with cocaine. Ross Rebagliati "went to a party where it was in the air" and, in Nagano in 1998, won the first snowboarding gold ever presented in the Olympics with ganja in his system. Mickey Mantle was perpetually drunk to the point where he said, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself." And now, in Japan, scandal has arisen in the sumo world as the Russian wrestler known as Wakanoho pulled his own Rebagliati.
Are these people our classic vision of a doper?
Is there one "classic vision" of a doper?
I am by no means the right man to be proselytizing about the evils of doping. I took my first shots at ten, smoked my first cigarette at eleven, and the rest was all downhill from there. I admit that I have used illicit substances before a grueling bicycle ride; I have gone backpacking in the woods -- by myself nonetheless! -- with a head full of chemicals. I have been worse to my body than even Mickey Mantle. Some say the body is a temple; others a roller coaster; mine has been treated like the village of Copsa Mica...
Yet as Chris Rock aptly points out in his 2003 political satire Head of State:
How can you make drug policy
if you never smoked the chronic?
How can you do that? Just a nickel bag!
So here I am, tequila in hand, ready to look at the hypocrisy so many of us are more than willing to live with every day as we condemn athletes for putting chemicals into their bodies as we medicate ourselves all the while. As a society, from our prison population bloated by a War on Drugs which goes long on mandatory sentencing and short on rehabilitative services to increasing numbers of pharmacological cures for everything from heartburn induced by poor eating habits to erectile dysfunction due to apathetic catatonia, we love miracle cures. Yet the one miracle cure which can show immediate results (despite the potential long-term side effects), that of performance-enhancing drugs used by athletes, are considered anathema to the entire human athletic spirit...
Why? We revere the champions of the past, foibles and all. This year's Tour de France Guide discusses how Charly Gaul, the Tour's 1958 winner along with victories in the Giro d'Italia in 1956 and 1959, would unapologetically talk about his use of amphetamines and other stimulants and chemicals to keep his legs churning over and over on the road. Thirty-five years before Gaul, the Pelissier brothers were already giving a famous interview to reporter Albert Londres, recounted in the seminal article Les Forcats de la Route (The Convicts of the Road) in his 1924 Tour race diary for Le Petit Parisien:
"You have no idea what the Tour de France is," Henri said. "It's a Calvary. Worse than that, because the road to the Cross has only 14 stations and ours has 15. We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here..." He pulled a phial from his bag. "That's cocaine, for our eyes. This is chloroform, for our gums." "This," Ville said, emptying his shoulder bag "is liniment to put warmth back into our knees." "And pills. Do you want to see pills? Have a look, here are the pills." Each pulled out three boxes. "The truth is," Francis said, "that we keep going on dynamite."
Ever since man first grabbed stick and created a spear, ever since we discovered uses for fire and for tools, human beings have sought better, more-efficient methods by which to obtain bigger and better and stronger results in everything from agriculture and architecture to the weight of each of Usain Bolt's world-record-setting shoes or Fabian Cancellara's wind-tunnel-tested champion time-trial bicycle or the LZR Racer increasing the efficiency of a swimmer like Michael Phelps as he streaks along to eight gold medals. We blink hardly an eye as the clothes athletes wear make them more wind resistant than their forbears; we say not a thing as their equipment becomes lighter and yet sturdier and thus more efficient. Yet if one of these athletes tries to even put certain cold remedies in his or her system there is imminent risk of a two-year ban. How many of us are forced to eschew a medication to recover from a cold to get back to work because that medication will get us immediately fired?
This seems like hypocrisy of the highest order. Does Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, have to follow these rules? Jacques Rogge? Sepp Blatter? Pat McQuaid? If one of them comes down with the sniffles, does he have to take less useful cold remedies because the ones that might work might also set off red flags in a urine test? Do they, if they have asthma, have to regulate how much salbutamol is in their system at all times so as not to go over the approved maximum levels?
We can create as extensive or as exclusive a list as we wish, yet not everyone will be appeased. For what is sport but a constant quest to seek a competitive advantage? Regardless of testing procedures and advancements athletes still continue to attempt to cheat the system and find new undetectable strains of performance-enhancing products. Some sides of the argument clamor for technological advances while others want sport to remain in a vacuum, immune from any alterations. Whether something like the handlebar positioning on a bicycle, the fit of a swimsuit, or even the length of leg prostheses as has been raised about South Africa's double-amputee Paralympic track champion Oscar Pistorius, some will always question the advancement of athletic technology. Yet these advancements are eventually assimilated and taken for granted by the next generation; yet what an athlete puts into his or her body is held to such scrutiny that health can ultimately be compromised for the overweaning surveillance...
Do I have all the answers? Hardly... except that the tequila in the glass is getting low. Hemingway and Thompson would be ashamed. Yet the truth is that there are no hard and fast answers to this dilemma. What is required is a more substantive dialogue in which we discuss what really should constitute a subversion of the rules of fair play. After all, if Bode Miller can pull off a speedy run down a snowy slope while hungover, why should he be reprimanded? So to with Rebagliati, who may or may not have inhaled -- so what if he did? How does a joint IMPROVE one's performance? We can ban all we want, but these problems will persist for time immemorial, as long as human beings pay other human beings to perform athletic marvels for the spectating pleasure of yet others still. Until we look into our own lifestyles and realize how much of what we take for granted would land us a ban were we to have to urinate to international sports standards, we are mere hypocrites every time we lambaste athletes for their indiscretions...