A 25th Anniversary But What Lessons Learned?

The First Major Doping Scandal in Olympic History
The First Major Doping Scandal in Olympic History

This year marked a significant anniversary in sport history, but one likely few celebrated. Twenty-five years ago—September 26, 1988—news broke of the first major doping scandal in the Olympic Games. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who just two days previously had won the 100 meter dash in a world record clip, had tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics. Johnson was neither the first to use prohibited “doping” substances at the Olympics nor the first to get caught. Johnson’s case is notable because it marked the first time a high-profile athlete was unceremoniously stripped of his medal rather than having his results covered up or ignored. Johnson’s case is also useful for framing the history of doping in elite sports and providing some insight into the current problem sport faces.

Pietri crossing the finish line at the 1908 Marathon
Pietri crossing the finish line at the 1908 Marathon

Long before Johnson, professional and Olympic athletes had sought substances to enhance their performance. Turn-of-the-century prizefighters would often draw on alcohol, perceived as a stimulant, while Olympic marathoner’s would use strychnine, a substance common in rat poison, to ward off fatigue. More interestingly, these doping substances were openly used. When Italian marathoner Dorando Pietri was disqualified from winning the 1908 Olympic Marathon, it was not because of his use of brandy mixed with strychnine but because sports officials had helped him after he had collapsed a few yards short of the finish line. One can even find newspaper articles discussing athletes’ doping much like today’ pundits discuss pre-game strategy.

So how did sport go from a tacit tolerance of doping to ejecting the fastest human in the world?

The driving forces behind anti-doping efforts have become largely forgotten. Surprising to some, the first anti-doping bans actually emerged from horse racing in the late 1890s. Horse racing began cracking down on drugs administered to horses in large part because owners and trainers were doping horses in order to profit by gambling. By making a horse race faster or slower, it became easier to fix races and profit from bets placed on the odds. We still even use colloquialisms from this period; those in the know about the fix would have the “inside dope” about which horse to bet on.

Horse racing realized fixed races hurt business and banned these crooked practices.

IOC President Avery Brundage authored the first anti-doping statement in IOC history
IOC President Avery Brundage authored the first anti-doping statement in IOC history

Similarly, officials in human sport soon found their tacit tolerance of doped athletes hurt their public image. The early stimulants athletes used included cocaine, strychnine, coffee, tobacco, and alcoholic drinks of the athlete’s choice. Most of these substances really did not help the athlete. Indeed, there is a famous story of a marathon runner John Lundquist who passed out while leading the Chicago marathon after reportedly drinking too many shots of whiskey. However, the International Olympic Committee soon concluded that images of athletes smoking, drinking and taking cocaine hurt its image of wholesome and healthy competition. This “branding issue” led to a series of reforms in the 1920s and 1930s that outwardly banned athletes from doping, though failed to include methods for enforcement.

Without real reforms, the practices persisted until a handful of high-profile deaths drew public attention to the risks of doping. Though neither the death of Danish cyclist Knud Jensen 1960 nor British cyclist Tommy Simpson in 1967 were directly caused by drug use, the athletes’ connections with doping spurred reforms. This continued until 1988, when finally the IOC stripped gold from Johnson for doping. However, in the quarter century since, the sport’s world has witnessed the ebb and flow of doping scandals with the seeming regularity of the tides without much progress. Recent revelations from baseball (Ryan Braun), track and field (Asafa Powell, and cycling (Lance Armstrong, among many) indicate the issue is far from solved.

A doped Tom Simpson climbs moments before his demise
A doped Tom Simpson climbs moments before his demise

But solving the issue may mean sacrifices that most are unwilling to accept.

Currently, WADA officials and doping experts from around the world are meeting to address the ongoing doping issue. Will they consider history’s lessons? History points out that athletes and officials lacked the will to really eradicate doping from sport. They may toe the company line and condemn doping but as a group they have yet to put their full effort into tackling the issue. More worrisome, researchers have pointed out that the culture of “faster, higher, stronger” that rewards a single-minded pursuit of performance—and also creates an entertaining and commercially profitable product—breeds a community that naturally gravitates towards drug taking for improved performance. In that sense, drug taking is only the outward symptom of a deeper issue within sport culture.

What solutions do we have? Real headway involves wholesale changes to the culture of sport. What won’t work are harsher punishments, lifetime bans, or more drug testing. These will not reach the root of the problem. The issue is a persistent culture views doping as a public relations problem but one quite willing to enjoy pharmaceutically-enhanced performance. Real and lasting changes require sacrificing aspects of sport that we value like extreme devotion, risk taking, and ever-greater performances. It will also mean shorter seasons, fewer records, longer recoveries from injuries, and more ordinary performances. However, it is unclear if anyone is willing to go beyond lip service and make those tradeoffs. If not, expect the status quo to remain for another twenty-five years.

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IAPS 2013 Philosophy of Sport Conference Comes to Fullerton

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Racing towards IAPS 2103 September 4-8, at Cal State Fullerton

As many already know, Cal State Fullerton is hosting the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport’s annual conference. My colleague Dr. Matthew Llewellyn and I are hard at work preparing for the arrival of the world’s best sport philosophers. For more information visit iaps.fullerton.edu. For more information on what IAPS is about or how to get involved or order its journal, check out iaps.net. We are excited that three of Cal State Fullerton’s graduate students are presenting papers at IAPS.

Dr Llewellyn and I are also excited to be presenting our paper “Before the Rules are Written,” which explores moral ambiguity in sport rules. Current doping scholarship has focused on the current ban’s justification and the appropriate policies for enforcing such bans. Existing research, however, overlooks one small but revealing question: what to do when the situation is ambiguous? In past instances and in future cases, rules delineating prohibited from acceptable means of enhancement have not clearly addressed emerging performance enhancing technology. Examples range from blood transfusions to ultrafast swimsuits to potential undiscovered ways to modify performance. In such cases, even a sincere athlete may find the rules unclear and their ethical obligation uncertain. Our IAPS paper will attempt to navigate this issue by clarifying important aspects of morally ambiguous situations involving performance-enhancing substances (PESs).

For more information on the conference or questions, please email me at jgleaves@fullerton.edu or email@johngleaves.com

 

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Wrestling with the IOC: Showing the True Olympic Colors are Green

A sad day for what the Olympic Movement has become
A sad day for what the Olympic Movement has become

The International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympic program has focused much attention on the quadrennial process of revising the Olympic Sports. Unfortunately, much of the media has focused on the wrong issues. Their failure to call out the IOC illustrates the degree to which we still fail to see the IOC, and the Olympic Games for that matter, for what they really are. Hopefully, by seeing the IOC’s real reasoning behind wrestling, we can see that the IOC’s decision was rooted in commercial self-interest rather than the desire to promote global sport.

First, what is not relevant to the discussion? It does not matter that the Olympic Games has featured wrestling often. The media seems to focus on this fact as some relevant piece of evidence. Many sports in the program today such as basketball (1936), judo (1964) and triathlon (2000) seem more traditionally “Olympic” than the now omitted sports of dueling pistols, croquet, polo, and, yes, tug-of-war. These were all Olympic sports at one time. And wrestling’s alleged links to ancient Greece is also irrelevant. Modern wrestling, including Greco-Roman, has about as much in common with ancient Greece as the torch relay…that is to say, not much.

Wrestling remains an inexpensive sport open to many people
Wrestling remains an inexpensive sport open to many people

But its tradition or lack thereof doesn’t matter to whether it should be an Olympic sport. It also shouldn’t matter what wrestling’s television ratings or ticket sales looked like. I say shouldn’t because I believe this actually did play a major role in shaping the IOC’s decision. If the IOC was barely balancing its shoestring budgets and carrying a small, modestly paid staff, I could understand bowing to economic pressures. But the IOC is not. Although exact numbers are hard to find as the IOC is a private organization, but it according to Olympic researchers Steven Wenn, Scott Martyn, and Bob Barney, the IOC is the wealthiest non-governmental organizations in the world. It can afford to carry a few sports with low television ratings and not hurt its bottom line.

However, the media, as far as I have read, has not called the IOC out for focusing on such irrelevant factors. The Olympics, as opposed to the X-Games, was not intended as a corporate vehicle to increase revenue for its shareholders. It purports to hold a series of high-minded ideals, being about something more than sport. It claims to promote sport for all, fair play, character, and many other values that have nothing to do with profit. And this is where the decision to remove wrestling is so wrong.

A clear commercial interest
A clear commercial interest

The IOC not only hypocritically claims moral while cynically seeking cheap profit, but is willing to throw a sport that serves many athletes from developing regions under the bus to a key demographic. Consider who the IOC’s financial interests, which hinge primarily on maintaining its TOP sponsorship program. These sponsors are seeking access to people who will buy their products. And while Coca-cola and McDonalds may want access to burgeoning markets in Asia and South America, General Electric, Dow, Visa, and Samsung are more happy increasing sales in Europe and North America. Hence why sports such as golf and rugby are now included in the 2016 Games.

But the IOC’s most coveted demographic are the youth. Like all corporations know, if you lock people into your brand when they are young, they will stay loyal for life. Getting young people to tune into the Olympics will ensure a stable audience that will in turn help demand higher revenues from sponsors who want access to that brand.

If Shaun White can sell gum, maybe he can sell the five rings, too?
If Shaun White can sell gum, maybe he can sell the five rings, too?

Hence the IOC has made a massive push to expand the Olympic brand among the youth. They have developed and implemented the Youth Olympic Games under the thinly-veiled and patently false disguise that the Youth Olympic Games will help fight childhood obesity. They have also actively pursued emerging action sports such as the snowboard half-pipe, BMX, and more popular forms of combat sports. Also telling are the short list of sports scheduled to replace wrestling which include more martial arts, wake boarding, sport climbing, squash, baseball and soft all and roller sports (which means inline skating and skate boarding).

Not only are such sports popular and dominated by upper and middle-class European and North American youth, but they are also expensive and require specific access points. Water, climbing walls, and skate parks are not nearly as easily access as the gym mats used for wrestling. The ideals of the Olympic Games aim for inclusion and opportunity regardless of means. Ubiquitous sports like wrestling, which cost so little but are played by so many, should not be traded away for access to a key privileged demographic.

So while many people have decried the loss of wrestling, few have called this decision for what it really is: a trade for wealth and cachet over access and inclusion. The loss of wrestling is bad, but not because it has been around for a long time, but because the motives are so crass as to question the IOC’s role as a governing body in sport. Apparently the IOC is not above cashing in when the people being left out have little to offer.

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What’s it all for? Sport, Philosophy, and the Pursuit of Truth

All this philosophy, what is it good for?

After transitioning from the heady world of professional philosophy of sport (i.e. the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport conference) back into teaching undergraduates and graduate students, I am reminded about how important it is to see things from other peoples’ eyes. In Portugal at the IAPS conference, I enjoyed talking with philosophers of sport from around the world. Even though our first languages were often different, we easily took for granted a base understanding about sport, philosophy, knowledge, truth, and even what we were doing. Our positions might often lead us to conflicts, but underneath this was a desire to know. This desire was built upon the premise that knowing is better than not knowing.

With junior scholars, it is easy to see how some of these premises are not granted. Knowledge and curiosity often take a back seat to performance on exams, life obligations. The pressure to soon find a job leads many to ask about the practical benefit of learning. The patent answer that knowing is better than not knowing rightly does not satisfy people who are making many sacrifices to be at the university. But for these people who may never make philosophy of sport their career, I think I have a better answer.

Tomek caught playing mid splash

The purpose of philosophy—to understand specific aspects of our world better—is useful in that seeing distinctions can lead to changes in practice. This is clear in when we consider the landmark debate between Suits, Meier, and many others, over the distinction of sport, games, and play. To the uninitiated, this argument about what is a game and what is a sport might seem pedantic (much like using the word pedantic in a blog). We all intuitively know what they are. I know chess is a game, soccer is a sport, and watching Tomasz splash in the bath water is a very wet form of play.

But such knowledge, I would point out to my students is the difference between knowing about plants and studying biology. I could just as easily say I know it’s a tree. It has roots, leaves, a trunk, and is tall. This intuitive knowledge might suffice for my ordinary knowledge, but without a better understanding of a tree’s biology, I couldn’t understand how to help it grow (fertilizer) or why it needs light (photosynthesis). In the same way, without a clear understanding of games (artificial barriers and inefficient means defined by constitutive rules to create a desirable activity), I couldn’t say very much about them. I certainly couldn’t explain why sportsmanship matters or why physical education classes deserve funding. Even if Suits and Meier couldn’t agree on the correct relationship between games, sports, and play, their debate illuminates some fundamental points.

First, sports build off of games (sorry, but I side with Meier on this one). Suits thought some sports were not games, but let’s be honest…he was wrong. But Suits was also right about how play enters into games. Play, moving from primitive to serious, is something we desire. With primitive play, we find that it doesn’t fulfill us for long. As our intelligence and mastery grows, so does our desire for good challenges. Thus we turn to games since they are much better conductors of play. Even more, we often turn to sports, since these types of games engage us much more completely as people. Sports are games requiring physical performance to be a central part of the game test.  Now physical performance as such is often unpleasant. After nearly passing out from my training ride in the 90 degree Southern California heat, one would think that I should have stayed inside my air conditioned living room to simply play FIFA on my X-Box.

Why did I choose cycling over x-box? Because despite the physical discomfort, cycling is a much richer game. It challenges my tactical awareness and my physical fortitude and does it at the same time. X-box only accesses a fraction of that. By understanding the value of games and sports, we can begin to prioritize one form of play over the others, not just out of biased opinion but out of rational argument.

Which brings me back to my second point about students and philosophy. Many students have grown to accept a pluralistic and respectful view towards differences. This is admirable and healthy when it comes to things such as ethnicity, religion, race, or culture but detrimental when it comes to knowledge. Yet often students bring a tolerant attitude towards others into the world of knowledge by arguing that truth is “subjective” or simply “one’s own opinion.” Now I know they don’t actually believe this, even though they may say they do. I know this because when I hand back failed assignments, they try to convince me why they were right. If knowledge was simply subjective, then they would have no reason to argue; they would have to simply accept that what they thought was an A, I thought was an F.

Even in the case of Wittgenstein’s duck rabbit, we know it is not a fish.

In the case of Meier and Suits, the debate over what counts as sport and games might seem to them as a debate about opinion. Why can’t Meier and Suits just agree to disagree? They can’t because what they are talking about is something real and something worth knowing. And if sports are real, then we should be able to determine if they are entirely a subcategory of games or they are not entirely a subcategory of games. This is the same as determining whether a tree needs water or doesn’t need water to metabolize oxygen. In both cases, it is not subjective but objective. And just because there are smart people disagreeing, doesn’t mean the answer can’t be found. Lots of people might disagree over whether there is water on Mars, but we are not going to assert that the answer is a matter of opinion. If my son points to a dog and calls it a cat, I will correct him rather than believe that to him it is a cat.

So in the end, why take philosophy? It helps clarify the world and it does so in useful ways. Although the benefits may not be immediately obvious (when am I going to need to use the difference between constitutive and regulative rules?), it may turn out later that the distinction helps (oh, when I am trying to change the rules about concussions in football). In either case, philosophy done right is not about lofty ideas or arguments or opinions, it is about curiosity and knowledge. For me, sport is something I have devoted much of my life to and I would like to understand it better. For students, I know that sport is something they will come across again and again. Understanding it might help them navigate their life’s journey a little better. And surely that is worth the price of admission.

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Sport By Any Other Name…

Does the Olympic Games reflect everyone’s vision of sport?

I am in the midst of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport’s (IAPS) 40th annual conference. Surrounded by international scholars, it is strikingly beautiful how people from all walks of life can share a common love of wisdom for sport. And with this group comes so many opportunities for good debates and conversations that really get the intellectual juices flowing. I firmly believe that the best learning someone else brings us up against our own intellectual horizons. Nowhere does this happen better than with international audiences.  This is because both culture and language can cause us to see things one way when other cultures and languages may just as rightly view something another way. At IAPS, this point becomes very clear when the topic turns to sport.

What does sport look like when no competition is present?

Sport, for the English speaking world, seems rather straight forward.  Depending on which version of Bernard Suits you read, almost all English definition involves competition, physical activity, and games. Klaus Meier, R. Scott Kretchmar, and yes, Suits, clearly sketch out what sport is….but only from a cultural perspective firmly embedded in the tradition of modern sport so kindly exported by the British around the turn of the century. In fact, Suits limits his definition of sport to things recognized by the International Olympic Committee, an international organization but one firmly rooted in the British notion of sport (Suits 27). But for others, the distinctions about sport so patently obvious to Suits are not quite so clear when they consider sport from their own cultural perspective. Consider the Scandinavian notion of Idraet, which embodies the notion of participation, challenge, but not necessarily competition, teams, codified rules, or games. This is a vision of sport that shapes cross country skiing, rock climbing, surfing and many other activities that don’t fit neatly into previous definitions of sport. Or consider the Asian notion of sport which includes activities such as martial arts performances, yoga, and tai chi. This even further complicate the neat definitions put forward by Anglo-American scholars.

Now this position is not to advocate any kind of relativism. Relativism is the belief that what is true for one culture may not be true for another–thus truth is relative.  I am certainly not a relativist and I don’t think sport is simply relative to one’s cultural view. Rather, what I think these differences illustrate is how sport is both a deeply embedded cultural practice and an easily translated one. It is really easy to see sport only in the way that you are first introduced to it, but it is also really easy to relate to ways that other people do it.  There is something easily recognizable about the way other people play sport. When I see how the Anglo-American view is overly focused on certain aspects of sport, it is easy for me to expand my notion much like an expanding horizon.

Surfing does not fit Suits’ model of sport

At the same time, it becomes clear how cultural values shape visions about sport. Historically, British sport was heavily interested in producing people ready to fill various roles in the British Empire, thus competitive team sports emerged. Asian sports often emphasize the value is in the doing, not in the outcome, thus martial arts training is sport even if one never contests a fight. And I am sure these distinctions continue if we explored the variety of meanings embodied by different cultures and languages in ways that philosophers such as Suits, Meier, and Kretchmar may have missed. So when they say sport is about “X,” they are often too narrow in their definition of sport because they are only speaking about a specific type of sport.

This can be especially worrisome when we consider how promoting one version of sport over other physical cultures’ notion of sport changes things. Consider how many sports attempt to proselytize their sport to the world. The National Basketball Association has a “Basketball Without Borders” program designed to spread basketball to all ends of the Earth. But what sport does this push out? Why is basketball better than traditional sports? I can respect that some might love the game, but the effort to spread the game has political and cultural implications.

Even more interesting is teaching philosophy of sport at to many bilingual students. I am now very curious to know how students who hail from Latin America, Asia, and Africa and who speak their native languages see sport in ways that I miss. Once I am back from Portugal, I look forward to hearing what they have to say about sport and the visions put forward by the many English speaking sport philosophers. Until then, I am excited to continue engaging the international community of philosophers of sport as we try to understand sport in its many forms.

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Playing at Work (Shhh, don’t tell my boss I’d work for free)

A great place to work, but am I at play?

As another academic semester gets rolling, I am reminded by how much I love what I do. I found a way to turn my passion for sports into a full time job (take that high school teachers who told me sports would never take me anywhere). I also work at an amazing university with ambitious and talented students who come from all walks of life. After watching the KNES 516 philosophy seminar come up with some great arguments and insights on their forum, I really can’t believe I get paid to talk about sport and physical activity with these people.

So here’s the question: am I at work or at play? Oh sure, I am paid to be here and there are certainly parts of my job that I dislike. But I don’t see these as necessarily opponents to play. Even worse, after rereading some of the great philosophical works on play (Suits, Huizinga, Espinoza, and Fink), I am even more confused than ever about the answer to my question.

Part of the confusion comes from Bernard Suit’s persuasive argument in his essay “Words on Play” that play and work are necessarily in opposition. Suits, the “Plato” of sport philosophy, explained that “we think of professional athletes as working when they play their games and as playing when they go home from work to romp with their children” (Suits 20). Or consider Esposito’s point that most people believe that “work is serious; play is engaged in for fun” (Esposito, 115). This argument would mean that work and play are like two sides of the same coin: you can never have both at the same time. And that would logically imply that I cannot be at play while I doing my work.

But hang on. My experience tells me this is not quite right (although it is so logically neat and tidy). While I was never good enough to be a professional athlete, I have spent enough time around them to know that on a given day, most would choose to be playing their sport than doing anything else in the world. More importantly, work done for pay is only a necessary evil to maintain existence. Of course work can be satisfying and meaningful; I know that. Still, we all need to eat and put a roof over our head. If we didn’t have to work to stay alive, we would naturally all pursue meaningful activities. Even Suits knew that, which is why he used his Utopia to illustrate the importance of game playing. But since we do still need to work, it makes sense that those lucky few who are good enough to get paid to play choose that option. Also, consider those athletes like Brett Favre, Michael Jordan, or Lance Armstrong who can’t seem to leave their playing days behind even though none of them need the money anymore…well, maybe Lance does. So perhaps it would be better to think about this: if “professionals” would still do their “job” even if they didn’t have to work to survive, then it is possible that they are at play even though they are getting paid.

We can even strengthen this position. Eugene Fink makes a persuasive point that play has the ability to spontaneously emerge anywhere. In this sense, Fink concludes that “[Play] is a fundamentally existential phenomenon. It is not derived from any other manifestation of life. To oppose play to any other phenomenon [work] is to risk misunderstanding it” (Fink 102). Fink continues that “when, as is the custom, we do not restrict play by relating it to work, to reality, to the serious, to the authentic, we commit the fault of not placing it with the other phenomena of existence.” In other words, play is part of the underlying fabric that makes up our experience of the world. We do not choose to play; rather play finds us. We are born playing, as my 7-month-old son can attest to. And you can never predict on a given day what will catch his eye—what will make him at play—but play always seems to find him.

Someone’s excited to play!

This vision of play makes sense given my experience with play at work. I have experienced hours fly by while engaged in writing or reading for class. I have left classes buzzing from the great exchange of ideas that just happened. When students “get it,” when an article suddenly “connects,” or when ideas suddenly “flow,” I can honestly say that play has found me. Of course it is serendipitous. I cannot force these moments to happen. But when they do, I know that I am very lucky to have a job that lets me experience such deep forms of play.

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Saying It’s So: Lance and Doping, Part II

Lance Armstrong’s Story is Not Black and White; Is that Why he Fascinates Us?

Yesterday, my website set a record number of visits with people reading “Saying it’s So.” Admittedly, I also spent the day reading the many articles, comments, quotes, arguments, and editorials about Lance. And considering the number tweets, Facebook posts, and article comments, it is clear that we are all trying to come to terms with the implications of Armstrong’s decision. Even those of us who have a position on the issue continue to find it interesting. After all of that, however, I find myself wondering: Why are we so captivated by the Lance Armstrong story?

It doesn’t feel like the usual voyeuristic gawking that goes on when some celebrity has a meltdown. If so, Lance could have simply flashed his crotch while heading out to a night club and we would have been done with it.

It also doesn’t feel like collective Schadenfreude that we sometimes see when some unspeakable public enemy gets his deserved comeuppance. Did anyone take to the message boards to defend Bernie Madoff after his ponzi scheme?

It is clear that the collective interest in the Armstrong story is both captivating and causing many people to undertake some serious reflection (which is good for philosophers). The story is not only dominating the cycling world and the regular sports news but also the major media outlets including the New York Times, the BBC, and Al Jahzeera. I mean if Armstrong taking drugs is being broadcast to regions that just went through the Arab Spring, there is something captivating here.

So what  is it? The closest explanation I can see is that of tragedy. Like with all tragedy, people want to understand the events, but they also want to understand the “why” and what lessons we should learn. Tragedy also fits in the Armstrong case. None but the most cold-hearted ever wanted Lance to turn out to be a doper. We wanted his great story: A cancer survivor come back from the dead to dominate the toughest cycling race in the world with the usual American mix of grit, bravado, and stunning superiority.

Now that that narrative is ruined, we are left making sense of ourselves in a world where Lance no longer evokes the image of an athletic great. Like people after a major earthquake, we are trying to find our metaphorical footing now that the ground under us feels unstable. We want answers that will hopefully put our minds at rest.

Many people, including my friend and cycling buddy Scott Herzig, have wished that Armstrong would have just come clean. In that sense, if Armstrong is guilty, the truth would certainly have been better than his take-my-ball-and-go-home approach. At the same time, on the (very small) chance that he really is innocent, what more can he do? Considering how devastating it would be after all of this prosecution to find out that Armstrong really won his seven Tours clean, I hope for USADA’s sake that they are right.

I also agree that knowing the whole truth would go a long way towards helping us all come to terms with doping in sport. I really like the idea of a cycling-styled “Truth and Reconciliation” commission. Best exemplified by South Africa following the period of Apartheid, former Minister of Justice Mr. Dullah Omar explained that “… a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.”  Such a process would help by allowing the blame to be acknowledged, regret to be expressed, and through granting of amnesty, we could get a clearer picture of just what exactly went on. As South Africa taught us, only by fully understanding the past can we begin to move forward.

Last, many people have defended Lance because of the good he has done through Livestrong and the number of people he brought into the sport of cycling. We do not need this defense. Please consider that for every person inspired to take up cycling because of Lance, there was a local club “hard-man” there to pave the way.

In my case, it was Scott Herzig and Geoff Procter (although we all had people like these). These guys were legends; they could crush pedals and fly up climbs. They were also there to pace me back when I was dropped and to mentor me through my first races. They are examples of how you don’t need to be a Tour champion to grow the sport of cycling. Procter continues to introduce many talented American juniors to European cyclocross through his Eurocross Camp. He has also maintained an unimpeachable and consistent anti-doping stance with all of his athletes and he has personally helped many talented cyclists further their love of the sport. In my case, he donated cycling clothing to me when I was just getting started, which as any cyclist knows is something you cherish. Herzig has played an important role in growing the Helena high school Mountain Biking scene.  This program continues to introduce high school kids to the sport of mountain biking. He also taught me in the fine arts of cycling etiquette and technique like riding in Montana crosswinds. Both of these individuals, however, welcomed a cycling newbie with no talent but tons of enthusiasm into their fold.

Now it is easy to give praise to unsung heroes, which both of these people are, but what

Wearing my old team kit while riding in Denmark this summer. Shows what a lasting impression good mentors can make.

they are doing is much more than that. Scholars have consistently shown that the “hero” or “halo” effect does not sustain a sport’s growth (weren’t golf courses supposed to be overrun with thousands of little Tiger Woods by now?). What does grow a sport are grassroots programs, strong mentors, and youth who are introduced to a sport’s subculture and internal goods. Procter and Herzig are doing just that. Their efforts are growing the sport of cycling more than Lance’s celebrity ever could. I am sure that, whatever sport we played, we had people like this. They are anonymous to people outside of their community (Aaron Rudick and Phil Sanders) but they changed our lives and we are forever indebted. They encouraged us, taught us the game, mentored us in life, and made us lifelong lovers of sport. Lance might have been a global icon, but we need to remember who it was that really grew the sport and improved their communities.

Perhaps by really trying to come to terms with the past and focusing on the really good stuff going on in the present, we can begin pointing sport towards a lasting and durable future.

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Saying It’s So: Lance Armstrong and Doping

If we are going to point the finger at Lance for doping, we need to take a hard look at sporting bureaucrats first

Since the news that Lance Armstrong will no longer fight USADA’s doping charges broke last night, many people have been asking about my take on the whole issue. Naturally, I felt it best to get a little distance from the news, sleep on it, think it over, and try to separate emotions from rational thoughts. As a philosopher and a historian, I find it best to consider the long view that will stand the test of time, look around for analogous cases, and reflect on the different issues at work. While it is clear that the Armstrong case is much like the daytime soap opera in that every time we think the show is over or a character is dead, we find the show really just takes another turn, we can say that Armstrong’s decision not to contest USADA’s charges pretty much says the writing is on the wall for his case.

What does it mean? First, Armstrong no longer is officially recognized as a seven time winner of the Tour de France (more on this point in a moment). That means Greg Lemond is now the only American to ever win a Tour de France. Also, in all likelihood, Armstrong will be asked (sued) to payback all of his earnings and potentially his endorsements over the years. Will Nike change the name to the Lance Armstrong building? We will see.

What it doesn’t mean, however, is that Lance should be convicted of doping. At first glance, this position might seem like a head-in-the-sand approach. If he violated the doping rules, then he cheated and should be punished, right? Indeed, since a USADA conviction is a doping conviction by definition, it is clear that he doped. Perhaps one could argue that not all people convicted of murder actually did the murder, but in Armstrong’s case, I don’t think this argument would convince many people. Rather, what I want to say is that according to the rules of his sport and the way that we play sport, Armstrong should not be punished for what he did.

This is for two reasons. First, even though Armstrong might not have been caught by doping controls while he competed, that only means the officiating was bad, not the athlete. This is not to say “it’s only cheating if you get caught” but rather it is acknowledging that officials often fail to enforce rules accurately. Consider the many instances where we quite certainly know that the wrong team or the wrong person won because a rule was broken. Perhaps one of the most famous and important example is Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” handball to score a goal that would allow Argentina to win the 1986 World Cup. Now it is clear to all who see the photographic evidence (and Maradona’s own admission) that he broke the rules. So why are we not taking away Argentina’s victory and awarding the World Cup to West Germany? It is because in sports, we assume that the result stands. Once the anti-doping tests came back negative, the book should be closed. If we later have information (like we often do) that officials charged with enforcing the rules failed to do so, we do not go back and try to rewrite the event. Rather, we acknowledge the mistake by the officials (in this case, it is a serious indictment of the U.C.I. and cycling) and point out that sports, like life, are not always fair. Maradona’s goal should not have counted, but it did.

A second reason for not punishing Armstrong is that it is clear that the cycling officials, by and large, dropped the ball on the whole doping issue. The number of athletes who have admitted or where evidence indicates that they raced while doping calls into question the results from cycling for nearly three decades (1980s, 1990s, and 2000s). Even consider the simple problem of awarding the 2000 Tour de France yellow jersey? Can they find an athlete that they know didn’t dope? I don’t think so. Anyone they award it to has at least an equal cloud of suspicion because they were not tested for doping and the tests that were done proved unreliable. Given the era of doping that Armstrong raced in, it is absurd to hand out a doping ban to him while ignoring the many other violations that occurred right alongside him. What is more pressing is a serious investigation of the culture, including the fans, that created an environment where doping practices flourished despite violating the rules of the sport.

Indeed, this whole case reminds me of the case involving Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was perhaps the U.S.’s greatest athlete. Part Native American and part Caucasian, Thorpe proved himself an exceptional athlete in track and field, baseball, and football. In 1912, Thorpe won gold medals in the Pentathlon and Decathlon. Later, however, the American Olympic Committee turned Thrope in for violating the IOC’s amateurism policy. For those who don’t know, amateurism used to be the doping issue before World War II. Everyone accused people of violating amateurism while few were actually punished. At the same time, most athletes, including Thorpe, did violate the amateurism rules. In Thorpe’s case, his only mistake was using his real name to compete in minor league baseball unlike his peers who all used fake names. The end result was that Thorpe was stripped of his two Olympic medals (spoiler alert: he got them back). At the same time, many people violated amateurism rules. Such violations were only made possible by unscrupulous promoters who knowingly paid athletes and the fans that bought ticket in order to see best athletes rather than unpaid local amateurs. Many people had a hand in helping Thorpe violate the amateur rules and to point out Thorpe and not others is to ignore the real cause.

So what does Thorpe’s case reveal about Armstrong? When you have a corrupt system with many athletes flouting the rules, it is unjust to single out one athlete, no matter how high or low their profile is, while ignoring all of the rest. It is troublesome to hand out punishments for a few while allowing others to clearly get away with the same violation. In that vein, it was wrong to go after Thorpe and the IOC since admitted that stripping his medals was unfair. Unfortunately, they only reinstated him after he died. Going after Armstrong, while ignoring the whole sporting structure is as bad as going after Thorpe. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the silver medalists to Thorpe ever considered themselves the real winner of the event, even after the IOC stripped Thorpe’s medals. USADA’s pursuit of Armstrong reminds me much of the persecution of Thorpe. Making an example of him will not deter others and it ignores the larger systemic problem.

If we want to take away Armstrong’s victories, I doubt that anyone can honestly call themselves the winner of the Tour de France. Even if they completed dope-free, the chances that one or more of their teammates doped is too high. Does that mean we erase the 1999 through 2005 Tour’s as if the never happened? No. Rather we should leave Armstrong with his titles, point out the institutional flaws that permitted a culture of rule breaking, and work towards creating fair and enjoyable sport for all parties.

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Gaming the System: Doping in Sports

A performance-enhanced (Photoshop) picture of San Francisco to fit with the theme of my talk

For those of you in the San Francisco area (home of Barry Bonds, who never knowingly used “the clear”) Swissnex has organized a public event on doping in sports titled “Gaming the System: Doping in Sports.” Professor Max Gassman, Professor Carsten Lundby and I will be giving a talks on the current issues in doping in sports.

For those of you who don’t know, Prof. Gassmann and Lundby are the real deal when it comes to the science of doping (I am clearly the very junior scholar on the panel). Of Prof. Lundby’s notable works, one involved sending samples from 8 athletes positive for EPO to two WADA laboratories. The results were startling. Prof. Gassmann has also shown interesting results doping mice with EPO. Either Prof. Gassmann is hoping mice racing will be a future Olympic event or he has made some important findings about the nature of drugs on sporting competition–mainly that over-doping (where athletes take too much of a drug) may not be of such concern with EPO because of the performance decrease that results from high hematocrit.

My talk will is titled “The ‘Sporting Prometheus’: What Doping Reveals About Science, Bioethics, and the Nature of Humans.” Linking to the Prometheus trope present throughout western literature, I am planning to address the cultural fascination with performance-enhancing technologies in sport, which manifest itself as both fear and enthusiasm. Thankfully, the omniscient New York Times decided to run a “Room for Debate”: The Case for Doping section on this issue. While none of the authors were very novel, including one that put forward an article that could have been written by an undergrad at CSUF, the authors captured the two sides in a nutshell. What I will argue is that this whole debate–and indeed the cultural interest in doping–reveals larger social concerns about what it means to be human and what to do when we have the power to make ourselves better that traces back to ancient Greece. Taking the position that sports mirror our society, I will conclude that the current conversation has little to do with actual sporting practices or the reality of performance-enhancing substances. It also has little to do with health, fairness, or spirit of sport. Instead, the performance enhancement issue, like the story of Prometheus, is mostly about our own cultural concerns over what it means to be human and what happens when we try to improve ourselves.

Now rumor has it that this might be broadcast on some public access channel somewhere so if I find a video link to my talk or decide to publish the text, I will let you know. In the meantime, please share your comments on my proposed talk and drop me a line if you can make it.

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Amateurism Alive and Well At the Olympic Games

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Should the IOC be in the business of controlling athletes’ behavior outside of the field of play?

Avery Brundage would be proud knowing that amateurism remains alive and well in the Olympic Games. Oh sure, athletes are paid to compete. Brundage lost that fight. But the moral code of amateurism still allows the IOC to police athletes’ behaviors in ways identical to those under their old Amateur Code.

After spending a week at the IOC Olympic Studies Center pouring over archived correspondences and internal meeting minutes with my good friend, colleague, and co-author on the forthcoming work The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism, Dr. Matthew Llewellyn, a number of key points about amateurism are clear.  Paying athletes, which many people associate with the professional/amateur dichotomy, was only a small part of amateurism. More importantly, amateurism was a moral code that embodied Victorian ideals about masculinity, social class, muscular Christianity, and morality.

So how does it live on today? One large relic of amateurism is the anti-doping rule. As I have argued elsewhere, anti-doping rules emerged from amateur ideals in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, anti-doping rests upon principles of health, fair play, and the spirit of sport. These same three principles also rested at the heart of the amateur moral code.

More importantly, amateurism lives on in the way that the IOC controls athletes’ behavior. Dress codes and control of social media are but a few ways the IOC continues to ensure that athletes maintain the same moral character demanded previously in amateur sports. For example, Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter prevents threatens to expel athletes from the Olympic Games for tweeting about any of their personal sponsors (heaven forbid the athletes interrupt the IOC’s own marketing campaign). If athletes cannot tweet about their sponsors, how professional are they really? Also, if athletes’ tweets are judged offensive or somehow scandalous, they also risk dismissal from the Games. Racist or provocative tweets have already landed some athletes in hot water.

Now I don’t condone racism at all and I believe athletes have legal and moral obligations to avoid hateful speech, but removing athletes from sporting events over voicing opinions has risks. By controlling what athletes say and do, they are maintaining the same control once mandated through the old Amateur Code (now re-branded simply as the Eligibility Code). The IOC may not like that some athletes are shameless corporate shills or (even racist ones), but I fail to see why they have a mandate to control athletes’ behavior in ways that few recognized governments can (China and Iran also police their citizen’s twitter accounts).

Under Avery Brundage, the IOC fought tooth and nail to maintain control over athletes. While preventing athletes from profiting on their athletic career was one aspect (since the Code believed that athletes who profited could not also participate in sport as an avocation), the main component was ensuring that sport was practiced in a specific way. Those who failed to practice sport in such a way were excluded. And by continuing to exclude athletes who fail to embody the amateur–ahem, I mean eligibility– ideals of the IOC, Brundage would be proud.

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