Monday, October 23, 2006

Is the USA the new East Germany?

Sports, at almost every level, has become overshadowed by performance-enhancing drugs. But what to do? The science is way ahead of the testing, and it seems like the drug cheats are winning the war. (Good profile in Sports Illustrated about BALCO chemist Patrick Arnold who talks about the future of these drugs. Countering the argument that drugs don’t help a batter hit a ball, he told SI, "A person taking testosterone is going to be focused and able to tune everything out. That's an aspect of steroids and how they affect hitting that people overlook: enhanced CSN [central nervous system] activation. It's reaction time.")

There has always been a degree of dishonesty in sports, just look at last night's World Series game with the "dirt" on Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers' hand; or, the famous shot heard 'round the world--the New York Giants beating the Brooklyn Dodgers when Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca--which is the subject of a new book examining how signs were stolen during that legendary 1951 game. But drug cheats are really redefining sports, and the culture around it. Lance Armstrong's achievements have been tainted by the specter, real or imagined, of cheating. Ditto Barry Bonds. It is a surreal, and helpless, time in athletics.

"I don't want my grandchildren to have to become chemical stockpiles in order to be good at sports and to have fun at it," Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), once said. "Baseball, take your kid out to the ballpark some day and you say, 'Son, some day if you ingest enough of this shit, you might be a player on that field, too.' It's a completely antithetical view to what sport should have been in the first place. It's essentially a humanistic endeavor to see how far you can go on your own talent."

So how does this define who we are as a culture?

Remember during the Cold War how the East German swimmers would win Olympic medal after Olympic medal? I remember watching those ox-women, knowing something was awfully wrong. I remember thinking that they represented a society of cheaters, of people who were fooling themselves. (They were also a little spooky with those broad shoulders and the five o'clock shadow.) Have we become a sort of East Germany? Floyd Landis, Barry Bonds, today's news of the suspension of San Diego Chargers Shawne Merriman (for steroids, according to ESPN) and the seemingly daily announcement of yet another failed drug test (greeted with nary a yawn). There is a fundamental difference between the US of A and East Germany, of course, this is not a state-sponsored campaign. Americans are more individualistic so we are cheating as individuals. That makes it even more frightening. Individuals are choosing to cheat, not being forced into it by a demonic governing body. And yet, our sporting landscape is not unlike East Germany not so many years ago, where citizens were sold on distortions of greatness. Shall we accept performance-enhancing drugs as part of sports? Apparently, we already have.

UPDATE: East German doping victims get compensation. AP article here.


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