Four years ago, Oscar Pistorius, still a hero rather than a murderer, was about to compete in the London Olympics against enabled athletes, running on his carbon-fibre blades. Not everyone was happy about this. The German team, for instance, said his Flex-Foot Cheetahs used 25% less energy and were unfair to natural runners. How was it fair to ban all doping, then allow one athlete to use special technology? It was against fair play, the spirit of the Games.
Pistorius’s supporters were incredulous that anyone could accuse an awe-inspiring double amputee of having an unfair advantage. That was definitely against the spirit of the games.
In the event, after Pistorius failed to qualify for the men’s 400m final, it was he who complained most bitterly, after being beaten at the Paralympics by Brazil’s Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira. The winner’s blades were too long, Pistorius said. He wanted an official investigation. “I believe in fairness in sport,” he said, “and I believe in running on the right length.”
With Pistorius and his blades out of the way, suspicions about sporting unfairness have returned to doping, whose detection is now practically a sport in itself, albeit a little on the slow side. Details are still emerging, thanks in part to whistleblowers, of the substantial contribution made by banned performance-enhancing drugs to the excitement at Sochi 2014. In its 2015 report, the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) said a cheating Russian team had effectively “sabotaged” the London Games, assisted by official inaction, and called for Russia to be barred from international athletics. A decision on Russian athletes’ participation in Rio is imminent.
Definitely absent from sport for the next two years will be their compatriot, Maria Sharapova, the tennis star and the world’s highest paid female athlete for 11 consecutive years. She has benefited, it emerges, from a fantastic sounding drug called meldonium, which is said to improve stamina and even, not unlike PG Wodehouse’s fabled Buck-U-Uppo, give the user “mental focus” and a “sharper edge”.
Alas, thanks to Sharapova, the online price has reportedly soared, from £15 to £27 for 40 tablets, the athlete’s personal endorsement evidently carrying more weight than official warnings about the danger of unlicensed drugs and, indeed, meldonium’s designation, by Wada, as against “the spirit of sport”. One of Wada’s purposes, its director general has explained , is to discourage the use of performance-enhancing drugs at the amateur as well as elite level, where it also constitutes a “challenge to the values of sport and its integrity”. Those values, he specified, included “ethics, honesty, respect for rules, self-respect and respect for others, fair play and healthy competition”.
If those don’t already sound quaint, given the colossal investment that rich countries consider a fair price for one medal, Wada may want to consider how sporting values accord with the IOC’s recent decisions on competition between individuals whose biology is so different that, some predict, fair play in certain women’s events could become impossible.
The former Olympic champion Sonia O’Sullivan has drawn attention to the latest triumphs of Caster Semenya, the South African sprinter who is now predicted to win a gold medal in Brazil. She won a silver medal in London, then faltered, not even qualifying for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The reason usually advanced for Semenya’s impressive return to form is the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) decision to suspend an earlier ruling by the IAAF that put an upper limit on testosterone for intersex athletes competing in women’s events. It was designed to ensure – at some cost to the dignity of intersex women athletes – fairness for the majority, who have much lower testosterone levels. Last year, the ruling was the subject of a legal challenge by the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, arguing her right to compete without taking testosterone-suppressing drugs.
The CAS duly suspended the regulations and asked for more evidence that high levels of testosterone confer a performance benefit. “To me, that CAS decision seems ludicrous,” O’Sullivan writes. “That’s the one marker that created the imbalance in performance and which has long been known.”
Adding yet more interest to future women’s events is the IOC’s decision to allow people who self-identify as women to participate in the 2016 Games, including, for the first time, women who have not physically transitioned. The contestants must, however, have kept their testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per litre for a year. Women usually have fewer than three nmol/L.
If the potentially arresting consequences seem to be have been subjected, as yet, to relatively little public examination, it probably, as with Pistorius’s blades, seems more in the spirit of the Games to welcome a landmark triumph over exclusion and discrimination for athletes who have as much right to compete as anyone.
The question is, when athletes are routinely segregated, in the interests of fairness, according to sex, often weight, against whom? Only the Games themselves will show if the cost of fairness for transgender and intersex women will be its loss – contrary to the spirit of the Games –for cis women athletes.
Then again, there’s nothing particularly fair about the Olympics, unless athletes from wealthy and powerful countries are just naturally better than athletes from everywhere else. Why shouldn’t intersex athletes enjoy their victories? But Joanna Harper, a physicist, athlete and trans woman, who is an adviser on gender issues to the IOC, says of the suspension of testosterone limits: “Allowing these [intersex] athletes to compete in women’s sport with their serious testosterone-based advantage threatens the very fabric of women’s sport.”
The IOC’s declared emphasis in Rio, on protecting “clean athletes” from the dopers, may only add to the indignation of some women competitors, held back by average hormone levels.
O ne solution, if testosterone is not all the help it’s cracked up to be, would be to remove it from the banned list of pharmaceuticals, to allow for individual topping up. And if that led to demands, from people who don’t fancy the side-effects, for testosterone alternatives, there is surely a place for niche tonics such as Sharapova’s Buck-U-Uppo or Lance Armstrong’s preferred androstenone, the active ingredient in – really – Boarmate.
As well as sparing athletes the incessant testing that never, anyway, keeps up with cheating’s finest, the freedom to take any safe, performance-enhancing drug would guarantee, for the audience, Olympics that are genuinely, as advertised, ever faster, higher and stronger.
It would be a shame if any sudden leap forward in Brazil were restricted to women’s events, courtesy of newly validated contestants.
If, however, the overriding sporting objective of fair competition dictates that pharmacological advances continue to be excluded from the range of athletics-enhancing innovations – from competitive swimsuits to the “secret tech” promised by British cyclists – the IOC might be advised to remind women in certain events of the importance of being a good loser. It’s the taking part that counts, right?
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Manny Ramirez is the latest athlete to be caught using performance enhancing drugs.
That seems to be the overwhelming reaction. From radio host Gary Radnich to one of my favorite blogs – Reign of Error – they’re not just tired of the scandals but they fail to see that it’s a problem.
The range of excuses and rationalizations seem endless.
Some view athletics as a form of entertainment and, as such, they don’t see a problem with steroids or cheating. If they’re entertained, they don’t care.
Athletics != Entertainment
I submit that athletics is a form of competition. The competition is entertaining. It is not entertainment. The latter is used by far too many to equate entertainment to business. Athletics is not a business. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of people make a business from sports and competition. But they are not synonymous.
If athletics is entertainment then lets get rid of wins and losses and forget about those silly standings. Instead it’ll just be like 81 trips to the movies. I assume you’ll have no problem with that.
By all means, lets crown the winner in terms of who was most entertaining. Forget the World Series, lets track who made the most money and have an end of the year awards ceremony. We can fight about whether the most profitable team should have won the most entertaining team award. Which outfield wins for best supporting cast? That sounds delightful!
Still think sports is entertainment?
Why do people leave when it’s a blowout? It doesn’t mean that there won’t still be home runs or touchdowns or goals or dunks. It means the competition is over! So please stop saying you’d be pleased as punch to sit and watch some ‘roid filled lunk hit 6 home runs in a 34 to 0 laugher.
Can you blame them?
Many say it’s hypocritical to blame these cheaters. ‘Wouldn’t you take steroids if it meant making $20 million a year?!’ My answer is no. I wouldn’t.
I understand this motivation. I acknowledge that it can be a very alluring idea for some. But I would not cheat for money.
The heart of this argument comes down to greed and it exposes a very real problem with American culture.
People seem willing to accept those willing to do anything in the quest for the almighty dollar. Success is no longer about attaining our best through hard work, practice and determination. Success is about attaining a big bank account … period. That sad statement is reflected in our ambivalence toward cheaters.
Cheating is a slippery slope
If it is okay to cheat to make more money, this means Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff shouldn’t be vilified. They were simply taking every advantage they could to get ahead.
This means you shouldn’t be angry at Wall Street fat cats. And don’t even try to be upset about mortgage lenders. No whining about politicians taking money from lobbyists. Stop complaining about black hat SEO and click fraud. Get comfortable with colleagues sleeping their way to the top.
These people are all just trying to gain an extra advantage. They were all just doing what they had to to make a buck.
If you accept cheating in sports, you accept it everywhere. You abdicate your outrage and muddy your ethical discernment. So spare me the ‘hypocritical’ tripe and look for that label in the mirror.
Empathy not sympathy
Some sympathize with the athlete (particularly an aging athlete) who is trying to stay competitive. To them I say that it is okay to empathize with the athlete – you might understand why they did it – but in no way should we condone or accept this behavior.
I understand the weakness of these athletes. Just like I might understand the reasons behind someone perpetrating a violent crime. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with them, nor do I think what they did is okay.
There should be no entitlement to ability nor having the same ability for perpetuity. There is no exemption for entropy.
Winning through cheating is not winning
Let’s give the marathon record to the joker who rode the bus for half the race. Hey, he was just trying to use any means necessary to win, right? What’s the big deal!
Winning is not about short cuts.
In 2003 I completed the Mount Diablo Challenge in one hour and twenty-six minutes. I was not first that day. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But I won that day.
A year of training – of hard work, sacrifice and determination allowed me to climb 11 miles and 3,200 feet that day. I still rely on that day and others on my bicycle to remind me that hard work pays off, that seemingly insurmountable goals can be overcome through hard work.
Cheating! I’d wonder if it had been me or the drugs. I’d have robbed myself of that hard won self confidence and fulfillment. No thanks.
Oh, we try to promote the idea that it is the journey that matters and not the destination.
It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
We tell our kids this but many now fail to honor this adage. Some, sadly, even find this statement quaint and outdated. And that’s scary because isn’t this what America really stands for?
America shouldn’t cheat freedom to win.
Everyone is doing it
Nonsense! Everyone isn’t doing it, and even if they were every mom has the perfect response.
If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?
Only a few get caught
Others focus on the fact that only a few cheaters get a lot of media coverage and that many cheaters never get caught. I find speeding is a useful analogy to show the specious nature of this argument.
A lot of people speed. Only a few get caught. Those driving candy apple red sports cars at excessive speeds may get caught more often because they naturally attract more attention.
The fact that only a few get caught, or that those driving really fast in extravagant cars are often singled out does not change the fact that speeding is against the law.
Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod and Manny get an unfair amount of attention for their misdeeds because they’re the candy apple red sports cars of the bunch.
Life is unfair. Get over it.
Life Is Unfair
Oddly, some use the ‘life is unfair’ argument in support of cheaters. They throw their hands up in the air and shout that it’s never a truly level playing field.
So I’ll revise the argument. Life is unfair enough without our artificial contribution. Or to rely on yet another saccharine saying – ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’
Don’t Cheat Yourself
Don’t give cheaters a free pass. Don’t say it’s okay because it’s just sports. Don’t say it’s okay because it’s entertaining. Don’t say it’s okay because it’s about money. Don’t say it’s okay because you understand why they did it. Don’t say it’s okay because winning is what really matters. Don’t say it’s okay because you can’t catch everyone.
Don’t cheat yourself with these flimsy arguments. Even if you don’t aspire to some lofty ethical paradigm, think of it as preserving your own self interest. Don’t invite cheaters into your own life.
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