Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lance Armstrong, Doping, and the Rules of Sport

I'm not a person who follows any sports as a fan, so I tend to come at issues like drug use in professional sports as a bit of an outsider. The recent controversy with Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour De France titles got me thinking about several aspects of professional sport that bother me.

Let me say up front that I think Armstrong probably is guilty of doping, and that I don't think he should have his titles taken from him. Contradictory? Read on!

The Joy of Pissing Into a Container

The first point of concern here is the rampant use of, not drugs, but drug testing in sports. It's just accepted as a standard thing these days, but taking frequent drugs tests is kind of demeaning and humiliating. Whether it's urine samples or blood tests, it's still a violation of your person and it has the implication that you are being treated as guilty until proven innocent, both things that shouldn't be taken lightly.

I'm not necessarily saying that drug testing shouldn't be done at all in sports (though I probably am saying that), but I do think that when you subject athletes to hundreds of drug tests, as Armstrong has been, then at the very least you should be willing to stand behind those tests and accept them as valid. If Armstrong can pass hundreds of drug tests over his career with flying colours and then still have things like this doping issue come up years later, then we're basically saying that not only are athletes being demeaned regularly at the time they compete, but on top of that they will still be accused of cheating afterwards anyway, basically giving them the worst of both worlds.

Who Won the Tour De France Then?

Various top cyclists have claimed that 'everyone' at the highest levels of professional competitive cycling dopes or uses drugs of some sort. This is in fact part of the argument against Armstrong; that he can't possibly have been beating all of these other cyclists who were doping unless he was too.

If this level of cheating is really happening, then who do you even call the winner in the Tours De France that Armstrong won? Everyone passed their drug tests, so who was the best performer in each event that you can confidently say didn't cheat?

Who Sets the Rules?

When 'everyone' at the highest levels of a sport is cheating, is it really cheating? Various organizations make the rules for each sport, and decide which substances are allowed and which are banned. But who really is in the best position to decide what is okay? If most of the top athletes in any sport are doing something, then I think that's a very strong argument that what they are doing is not wrong, and that the rules are out of date. These are the actual people dedicating their lives to the pursuit of some pointless, arbitrary activity, and if they don't feel that taking some particular substance diminishes the 'purity' of that activity, then shouldn't this more or less be the definition of what that sport is? I would apply the same reasoning to changing rules in a sport too.

Which Enhancements are Okay?

Over time we continue to make advances in nutrition and technology, and these things impact on sports. Better cycles, aerodynamic helmets and clothing, all of these things can improve a person's performance. A better diet, supplementation with protein, vitamins, all sorts of substances can also improve a person's performance. It's a very grey and muddy area deciding which things should be acceptable and which shouldn't. Do you care if your favourite athlete is taking steroids? EPO? Creatine? Cold and flu tablets? Pain killers? Caffeine? Multivitamins? Protein shakes?

If a competing athlete has, say, a naturally high testosterone level, would you have a problem with other athletes taking supplements that boosted their testosterone to the exact same level? In the not too distant future gene therapy will make it possible to enhance our bodies at the genetic level, giving us all sorts of performance enhancement possibilities that will be totally undetectable. At that point, people will either need to figure out what the purpose of competitive sports actually is, or pine for the good old days when people just did blood doping and steroids!


  1. I come from a similar place like you (do sport pretty much daily but have no interest in being a fan of professional competitive sports), so I agree with most of what you say. A couple of additional thoughts:

    I think that the whole issue revolves around the question what is the purpose and meaning of competitive sports, and it seems that the Armstrong scandal made a lot of people uncomfortable by indirectly questioning the widely accepted answers.

    So what is the purpose of competitive sports? We're being told that there is some kind of dignity and glory in extraordinary achievements of individuals who supposedly work much harder than the rest of us and then mutually compare those achievements in a fair play competition.

    Nothing against extraordinary achievements. I have always felt a lot of respect for anyone who confronts the limits of their current abilities, in any type of activity, not just sport. The problem with doing so is that in such activity, everyone competes only with themselves. An old, fat dude, who starts jogging five, ten minutes a day after his second stroke, keeps at it and builds up to half an hour within a year is in my world perhaps more of a winner than Olympic medalists, so the comparison of their 1500m track times is utterly meaningless to me, apart from the trivial fact that one would fetch me a beer from a hypothetical remote restaurant a bit faster.

    Let me attempt a definition here: in a non-competitive activity, the amount of "win" is the relation between what was achieved and what could have been achieved in the given situation. The latter number, the imaginary 100% achievement, will vary from person to person, time to time. To put it simply: to do well is to the best I can.

    In principle, comparison to other people seems meaningless. Either their possible 100% achievement is more than mine, but then it means I can't achieve what they can, so competing is absurd, or vice versa: I would be beating people who can't possibly beat me.

    In practice, though, comparison with others can inspire people to work harder in order to get closer to their 100% achievement. If you compare two people whose possible 100% achievements are very similar, but their results are quite different (e.g. 60% vs 92%) it's clear that one of them was working much harder and is a deserving "winner" over the other. At least this inspires respect for a reason, but again: the slacker would have been a slacker even if there was no winner, because it's his own unfulfilled potential that judges him and accuses him, as it were. No comparison is necessary.

    I think that the competitive sports work on this assumption: that the people in sex or weight categories are reasonably equal in their potential and therefore their results truly reflect their achievements.

    This is of course wrong, because as you say, there are inevitable innate differences between individuals. Curiously enough, these differences that devalue the idea of competition are mostly considered "talent".

    The question remains why competing is so socially attractive ("fun").

  2. Coming back to my beer fetching example: if I was testing most of the Tour de France competitors for their ability to fetch tasty alcohol over long distances in a mountainous terrain, I'd find the differences between them completely negligible: they all ride pretty damn fast, even to a thirsty beer lover. So why do we all know just one name when, for all purposes, everyone there kicked ass?

    I can't attempt to tackle this question properly, as it contains non-trivial psychology, sociology, even religion. Suffice it to say that most people have innate, unreflected need to see the society and the world in general as a hierarchy. Saying that something is "good" is not enough, it has to be "better than". People project this (mostly absurd) desire into many things in life where comparison makes even less sense than in sports (for example art). Always building a hierarchy and always trying to climb it seems to be like an atavistic instinct that may be at times reflected (especially within a family, where it feels wrong for most of us to prefer one parent or sibling over another), but never dropped.

    This fact is relevant to your question: why don't we just drop all the rules? Since there is some creepy archaic hierarchy worship underneath the popularity of the winners, you can't possibly consider mechanically converting it into a race of homunculus monsters. If the chemicals are what wins the race and the people who bear their effect become only interchangeable empty shells, spectators won't be interested anymore. There would be no human story to relate to behind such victories, and the advertising contracts of the winners would drop in price. There is a reason why there is no popular race of machines. With such sport, it would become apparent that competitive comparisons of arbitrary parameters are a royal waste of time. Imagine for example a benchmarking competition of graphics cards - clearly an exciting event, but I'm not sure it's ready to replace the Olympics yet. ;-)

    Regarding the rules and whether they can be dropped: they can't be dropped altogether, that's for sure, because then you would pave the way for the race of a jet and a turtle. A game is defined by rules, if there are no rules, there is no game.

    The rules might be relaxed towards the acceptance of doping, but that would potentially endanger the function of sport as a pseudo-religious ritual (as explained above), and also pose grave ethical issues, because the racers, whose health is already unbelievably abused, would practically become modern-day gladiators, most of them either dying or suffering permanent injuries due to extensive, unlimited abuse of untested harmful chemicals.

    I do hope that our civilization has made some advancement from the times when it was considered fun to watch people die, but then again, I might be wrong.

    1. Of course I agree with everything you've written here, and you've made the points far more eloquently than I would be able to. I like the idea that people should be competing primarily against themselves, and that if you could somehow define a person's '100% achievement level', you could then directly compare people of vastly different physical ability by measuring how close they got to their maximum potential. Whether this would be interesting to spectators is another question though.

      We already make special allowances for physical differences in a couple of cases: Women and men competing separately, and disabled people competing in their own classes. People seem to be comfortable with the idea that even though the best female marathon runner will kick the asses of 99% of the male population, she won't stand a chance against the best male competitors. This goes to such an extreme that the biggest cheating in women's events isn't doping and steriods, but whether the athlete is really a man!

      The other thing is, thanks in large part to all the money involved in professional sports, it's now so competitive in most sports at the top that even the best athletes can only make it there through massive sacrifices. A world class athlete pretty much has to sacriface everything in their lives and become obsessively focuses on this one thing. Is that actually the kind of person that people should be admiring and trying to emulate? The competitor who comes last because they're also juggling a real job and taking good care of their children deserves much more respect in my opinion.

      Regarding the physical abuse and permanent injuries of athletes, this is already very much a reality in some sports, and it's just going to increase over time. Professional bodybuilding is an obvious example, where it's simply impossible to even think of competing without using steroids in a serious way. Mui Thai is another example, where kids start training at a young age and their bodies are basically worn out by their early twenties!

      Finally, one thing I think you might have misunderstood was the idea of dropping all of the rules. My suggestion was rather to allow the top athletes in a sport to define the rules of their sport.

  3. You're right, I did misread the question of rules. It would be indeed interesting to hear perhaps Armstrong's own thoughts on how to reform the current situation. Maybe he even proposed something, but I don't follow him on Twitter, so I would not know. ;)

    One more interesting thought occurred to me in comparison to arts, where people also eject rules and (more or less) measurable standards (though it's not formalized like in sports). However, it is up to any artist whether s/he will comply or try to define their own set of rules instead. You have a choice to run (and most probably lose) in the popular race, or start your own and win it. :) So if you can't be a Pavarotti, you can still be a Bob Dylan. But that's a topic in itself.

    I also wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your blog, because it makes me think and forces me to work things out for myself, towards clearer understanding. To inspire own thoughts is, in my opinion, the very definition of great essay writing. In this vein, if I comment here, it is more me trying to work things out with the help of writing rather than trying to disagree or troll. ;) Also, your blog needs more beer-related metaphors which I can expertly supply. ;-)) Keep it up, you have a follower here.

    1. I'm really glad you're enjoying the blog, and by the sounds of it, for the exact same reason that I'm writing it in the first place. I don't really mind if people agree or disagree with me, since it's the act of trying to write down my thoughts in a clear and logical way that motivates me. If I can get some good responses to what I write, then that's a bonus I'll happily accept!