It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” – Benjamin Franklin
In light of the recent Lance Armstrong drama surrounding his performance enhancement during his competitive cycling days, I was inspired to write a little something about the topic. I understand this all makes for good television and fuels the media circus to spin for days on end, however I have to ask myself “Why?” I know I might be jaded on this topic because I have seen performance enhancement in the arena of sports evolve dramatically over the years from equipment improvements, sharpened and focused athletic training programs namely in strength and conditioning, better informed nutritional plans and approaches, and yes, more knowledge and subsequent improved application of many legal substances that when applied in many areas of sport are deemed “banned” and when they help a normal citizen fighting certain medical conditions they are acceptable. So what is the solution? In my opinion, it is to not draw a line at all and let talent, genetics, and training dictate the competitive spirit and peak athletic performance of each sport.
If I could give you a pill that would make you an Olympic champion — and also kill you in a year — would you take it?” Dr. Gabe Mirkin
This question was posed to competitive runners in 1967. And the results? Over half of the runners responded yes. Fast forward over 40 years to athletes in competitive sports today, and I would venture that an even larger percentage of them would answer yes. Why? Because these athletes in 1967 were striving to be the best non-paid Olympians. Athletes today have the potential of endorsement deals worth tens even hundreds of millions of dollars, they have the potential to be famous and highly esteemed in their respective arenas, and they can be a legacy for generations of their family tree allowing them to be raised from poverty to wealth. All of this adds up to the fact the stakes are much higher in sports competition today.
Why does the mindset of an elite competitive athlete matter in this discussion? Well, it is a mindset so far separated from the general public that we should know that an elite level athlete will compete with whatever it takes and a win at all costs attitude. If being the best at their sport requires taking steroids and growth hormone will they do it? Of course so. It might be similar to asking a mother of a small child if she will do anything to save their child if that child is in danger. Of course she will. So why do we waste endless hours, resources, and money to fund the bad cop sport scientists to govern and test the banned substances in sport? Beats the hell out of me? I suppose the public likes the good cop/bad cop and hero/villain dichotomy.
I would like to conclude with several examples found in sport that clearly show evolution of the sport. Now whether a purist might decide these particular evolutions are good or bad for the sport is irrelevant, my point here is competitive athletes will continually pursue peak performance in their respective arenas at all costs. So let’s start with the currently hot topic of cycling and the Tour de France shall we?
Here are some photos of the Tour de France in the earlier part of the 20th Century. What’s that? Is that a fellow teammate helping the lead rider with a performance enhancing drug during the ride? Yes it is. At the time, cigarette smoking was thought to improve respiration so riders would often smoke during the stages of the Tour. Is this any different than doping after a ride? Not in my opinion. They both are after the same goal: improving oxygen efficiency during a ride. The doping techniques are just a superior and much more well-informed approach to the ever present problem of recovery during endurance sports like cycling. And I like how the riders in the second picture are recovering – stopping into the local pub for a pint Another item to note, I am sure those bikes back then were not nearly as light as the modern day cycles used in the Tour. Should we try to get Lance to saddle up on one of those ponies? No. And do we try to compare Lance Armstrong to those riders? No. And it should not matter.
I know, I know, it is easy to pick on the sport of bodybuilding. But herein lies a great example of the evolution of training in a sport which includes performance enhancing drugs. Notice I like to call “training” anything under the pursuit of peak performance. Are steroids, growth hormone, and a slew of other pharmaceuticals part of the concoction to make a top performer in competitive bodybuilding today? Yes. That all goes into the “training” program of that particular sport. Would that same training program and combination of performance enhancing drugs help out a professional golfer? No. Can you really compare the bodybuilders of pre-steroid era with modern bodybuilders? No. And any sport historian knows this and accepts it. The rules of bodybuilding allow for the use of such drugs that are banned in many other sports arenas. Fans of competitive body building know historical comparisons come down to personal preference as the sport is more subjective than objective anyway.
It was not that long ago, that Barry Bonds was the poster boy for performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Major League Baseball officials and purists of the sport won in their battle against performance enhancing drugs. But did the fans win? Not in my opinion. The baseball fan base is in large part lower than in the home run derby days of Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. Why? Because that made baseball exciting and these athletes were achieving things never before possible. How? Improvements in training programs. Again, did those training programs include performance enhancing drugs? Yes, but does it matter? Again, if you are sport historian or baseball purist and want to compare Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds, it comes down to subjective opinion because objective comparisons like statistics have to be thrown out the window for many reasons. And to me that should be accepted. After all, aren’t accolades like the Hall of Fame really subjective and political anyway? Pete Rose not in the Hall of Fame? C’mon folks.
Tennis and golf are probably the two best examples of sport performance improving through the advancement of equipment designs. Should we make Rafael Nadal use the wooden racket of the Bill Tilden era? No. (ahem baseball) Do we know and accept the fact that Tiger Woods can out drive Jack Nicklaus in his prime? Yes. Why is that? Well, it is better equipment AND training. Look at Rafael Nadal and Tiger Woods, both are superior physical specimens when compared to their yesteryear counterparts in their respective sports. Why? Simple. Improved training.
In summary, athletic performance has for the most part improved over the years. Why? Variety of reasons like equipment designs for efficiency, accuracy and safety, better nutritional choices for athletic performance and recovery, and a host of focused training techniques. So where do we draw the line in training for a competitive sport? In my opinion, we stop drawing the lines and let the athletes compete based upon their genetics, skill, talent, and training programs. What if these training programs include performance enhancing drugs? Who cares? These drugs just compliment the athlete’s training program not completely dictate success or failure within their given sport. We must remember, these genetic specimens of elite level competitive athletics are different than the general population. If Joe Blow off the street with normal talent levels in any sport picked up the same training programs he would NOT become the next athletic star in any sport. Peak performance and elite competition are driven by SO MUCH more than the implementation of performance enhancing drugs.
So play ball! Start your engines! Kickoff! Quiet please.