“Fair Play”: Science, Steroids and Sports

By | September 23, 2013


Skill is a delicate balance between hard work and natural ability. And while the tension between the two has to be efficient to produce a capable student/shot putter/basket-weaver, it’s often completely lopsided; you’ll have that kid in your chemistry class who only every studied the night before every final and waltzes out with an A, and you’ll have the kid who comes off as dumb as a bag of rocks, yet works like a dog for every assignment put in front of him, and has the results to show for it. Each arrives at the finish line, and there’s no guarantee that the naturally gifted will get there first, but Brilliant McOrgo had to put in a lot less work.

The dynamic between discipline and natural talent is evident in a number of domains, but particularly visible in any kind of physical field.  My area of expertise isn’t soccer, but ballet—in that discipline, the body you’re born with can mean the difference between the stage of Lincoln Center, and its mezzanine.  Natural flexibility, high arches, loose joints, long Achilles tendons, and a short torso with long legs, arms, and neck; lacking any of these isn’t enough to preclude a person from a successful career in ballet, but possessing one or all of them makes success a whole lot more likely.

In the September 9th issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviewed David Epstein’s new book “The Sports Gene,” in which the author applies this phenomenon to, well, sports.  Gladwell refers in his review to renowned Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mäntyrant, who carries a genetic mutation that causes his bone marrow to produce a surplus of red blood cells.  In a high-endurance sport such as cross country skiing, this gives him an immense advantage; it doesn’t mean he didn’t work immensely hard to get where he is today, but it means that he naturally had a better springboard than his fellow skiers.  The same goes for Bahamian high-jumper Donald Thomas, who, as the lucky beneficent of remarkably long Achilles tendons, was able to win the world championships 8 months after he first started training. But the focus of Gladwell’s article is the athletes who try to level the field; athletes like Lance Armstrong, and Alex Rodriguez, each of whom used science to further the possibilities of what the human body can accomplish, or as most people would describe it, cheated.

But it’s possible to argue that Armstrong and Rodriguez’s actions, in principle, were in fact ‘leveling the field.’ In baseball, for instance, MLB has no problem with players receiving corrective surgery on their eyes, or replacing the ulnar collateral ligament in the player’s pitching arm with one from a cadaver or from elsewhere in the player’s body; this, too, is using basic scientific understanding to correct for slight deficiencies that make a substantial difference in successful play.  Baseball players, on the whole, have vision immensely superior to the rest of the population, on which they rely to accurately catch and hit tiny balls zooming at 90 miles an hour; better vision can be the difference between bench warming at the local high school and pitching for the Yankees. Tendon replacement surgery, too, turns the athlete into a “better version of his former self.” Armstrong and Rodriguez used endocrinology as opposed to ophthalmology or orthopedic surgery in order to enable themselves to work harder—is the line between different areas of science really stark enough to delineate the quotidian from the morally depraved?  This is the question Gladwell raises in his review of Epstein’s book, and I think it has value.

Soccer is famously all but free of doping scandals, as sheer force or superhuman endurance, while helpful, aren’t as quite key as in other sports.  There’s no steroid for agility (though if there were, I’m certain soccer would be more of a part of this conversation). But that’s not to say that the sport is immune; just in June, FIFA voted to incorporate new biological profiles for players to insure against doping.  In any event, the overall question applies to all areas of sports: why do we so thoroughly revile players for some measures, and not others? Why is the difference between corrective surgery and EPO doping the difference between getting ahead, and craven cheating? Gladwell doesn’t exculpate Rodriguez or Armstrong, and nor should he.  But emotions are often too intertwined with sport for rational discussion to even be possible; the suggestion that an athlete who used measures to ‘get ahead’ is anything but the most disgusting kind of traitor is more often than not laughed out of the room. In the specific cases of Armstrong and Rodriguez, they should be reviled; Armstrong in particular cloaked himself in the credibility of the cancer community to dispel suspicion, and any revulsion thrown his way is pretty well deserved.  But at the same time, it’s important to examine the assumptions we operate under when we consider any and all physical enhancement to be morally reprehensible in sports.


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