We love to think that athletes compete under that dreamy spirit of pure competition embodied in Citius Altius Fortius (Higher Faster Stronger) from the Olympic movement. This is a lovely fantasy, right up there with Rue McLanahan and Sigourney Weaver wrestling naked, in pudding. OK, the wrestling is wrong, but, we like the concept of pure sport. There has been no such concept for generations, even in Baron de Coubertin’s day of rehydrating the Olympics out of some soft-focus fantasy of amateur competition.
A couple of examples: Golf: The ball originally was leather stuffed with feathers, then rubber, then a wooden core, then a metal core, then dimples and so on. Technology improved the game and the initial ‘unfair advantage’ was adopted by the players. Track and Field? Spikes and starting blocks gave the early adopters huge advantages over the barefoot and standing start runners. Pole vault technology went from ash, to bamboo, to fiberglass to carbon and unobtanium. The vaulters used to land in sawdust and cinders, then foam, now air valved inflatables.
The humans have adapted as well. Training methods used to include robust dinners with laudanum (opium wine) and brandy during the race. Now the lab coat brigade start with analysis of six-year olds to see if they have the potential to compete at the highest levels, the less than possibly perfect being weeded out by the age of eight. Only those who have the potential to uptake more millibars of oxygen during a specific heart rate will be moved along. I won’t even mention the weirdness that female gymnastics competitors undergo.
The endurance events in sports, like track, or cycling or biathlon are the ones that truly cross the line into mad science. Human growth hormone, Erthropoitin, blood doping, testosterone and even more strange things are injected into athletes to make them go faster and longer. As the scientists come up with a new way to pharmaceutically jack up the athlete, the anti-doping folks come up with another test to find the metabolites in the blood and urine. It is an endless battle of the black hats versus the white hats with serious product endorsement and performance contract appearance money up for grabs. Ask Floyd Landis or Justin Gatlin about the money involved in sports. They’re both in a world of hurt regarding the possibility of being caught doping. Not the actual doping, just the being caught.
In a RoadDave of a few years ago, I figured we should just dispense with the pretense of honest competition. I still feel that way, so here’s the short form.
Go as fast as you dare. The only caveat is that the athlete must be able to walk, alive and unaided, up to the podium to receive the medal or trophy. After that, we don’t care. There will the occasional misfortune of sprinters bursting into flames at the 60 meter mark, or Tour de France cyclists leaving Low Earth Orbit, but that is the price that must be paid for the best performance.
I can see future golfers hitting the ball a kilometer or more, while baseball players hit crushing line drives that kill kids in the cheap seats in left field at Wrigley. I can see hockey and lacrosse players violating several laws of Physics, while the gymnastics fraternity dispense with the spinal column altogether. In each sport however, is that caveat: Walk unaided and alive up to the podium to get the trophy or medal. This will put enough of a brake on the mad scientists to keep the athletes or teams alive for a whole season. I can foresee some interesting steroid rages from football and hockey teams whereby whole villages are physically sacrificed for their beloved Packers or Hurricanes.
There is also the whole aspect of future effects of the various doping strategies. We might see, of the few athletes that do survive into their 30’s to retire, a preponderance of tumors the size of turnips, or incidents of sociopathic madness involving guns, high buildings and crates of ammunition. As long as the retired athlete has the requisite sponsor product logos well placed for the cameras, who are we to care? We want our fantasy of pure sports.