Olympics, Doping, Genes, and Other Inconsistencies in “Performance Enhancement” and Sport

Editor’s Note: Today and tomorrow, Points “rips from the headlines” to look at doping– Olympic and otherwise– as part of drug history.  Guest blogging for us in these pieces is Ross Aikins, a self-proclaimed sports-nerd, journalist, teacher, and postdoctoral fellow at the National Development and Research Institutes in New York City.  A recent PhD from UCLA’s School of Education, Ross principally studies enhancement drug use in society, substance use issues among military veteran and college student populations, and other education and health related issues. He blogs at www.yourblogondrugs.com; this is his first article for Points.

The Mandarin Mermaid

Two weeks ago the sports media landscape buzzed with suspicions about the dominating performance of 16 year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen.  There shouldn’t be anything controversial about this.  After all, competing at the limits of human performance and shattering world records is what virtually all Olympians aspire to and train their whole lives to accomplish. But when we talk about “suspicion” in sport we’re usually talking about doping.  Olympic athletes are the most tested humans in all of sport, and to date there is no evidence to suggest Ye ever used a banned substance.

Much of the faux-controversy may stem from the fact that the freestyle leg of Ye’s 200 IM was faster than that of men’s gold medalist and world record holder Ryan Lochte.  Or, in the 400 IM, Ye dropped the world record by nearly a whole second.  But are these feats really any less credible than the perennial dominance of, for example, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who seems to regularly set world records while celebrating mid-race? And is our collective speculation over alleged athletic performance enhancement any less warranted than, say, allegations that the man who announces these feats– NBC Sports’ eternally cherubic Bob Costas– may be cosmetically enhanced?

This is where sport, and sports culture are unfairly inconsistent, despite the premium that we—the sports consuming public—place on fairness in competition.  This pair of blog posts are about a lot of things, but mostly they are about the past, present, and future of both objectivity and subjectivity in sports and sports medicine.

To offer a broad sports generalization, rules and standards are applied to preserve fairness in competition.  It is important to us to be able to declare winners and losers objectively.  (This is important to Las Vegas for similar reasons).  Sprinting and swimming are pretty objective: you are either fast, or not.  Touch pads were first used for swimming during the 1968 Mexico games to minimize human error, and major pro sports are becoming increasingly reliant upon the use of instant replay to make games more objective, and more fair.  The confluence of high-definition cameras, high speed relays to the field, and a booth with a curtain was all it took for the NFL to jump hardily on the replay bandwagon.  Goalline technology is currently being considered by FIFA in soccer.  The use of replay is expanding in the NBA.  Baseball is the one holdout [1].

Of course there are plenty of chemical-free sports scandals throughout history.  The Black Sox World Series scandal of 1919, the recent point-shaving disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy, and arguably the entire sport of boxing exemplify how difficult it is to prevent human tampering in sport.  Sport is a giant industry, and when it comes to fairness in competition, corruption is cheating—it’s unfair. Likewise, when it comes to doping in sport, outcomes are binary.  Ye and Bolt are by all accounts clean, while Ben Johnson tested positive for the steroid stanozolol in 1988 and was disqualified.

Bolt Celebrates Good Time

However, official classifications of which substances are banned—and importantly, for whom—are subjective and change over time.

Mark McGwire took androsteindione, a steroid precursor that was legal in 1998 when he hit a then-record 70 home runs, but it became a banned substance in 2004.  Barry Bonds, allegedly and “unknowingly,” took “supplements” that were then-undetectable during his record resetting 73 home run season in 2001, while his head somehow grew approximately 1 inch in circumference [2]. But while such high profile incidents dominated the doping discourse in baseball, over 100 Major League Baseball (MLB) players quietly filed for “therapeutic exemption clauses” to MLB’s less-heralded 2005 ban on amphetamines.  This brings us to the curious case of outfielder Andres Torres.

On August 13th, 2010 when Torres was with the San Francisco Giants, a local network commentator said: “Andres Torres was a track star in Puerto Rico, and says it took him a while to develop as a hitter, but there’s another reason why he got it going late: he was diagnosed with ADD in 2002, but didn’t start taking medication until 2007 during his 2nd stint with the Tigers organization.

There is arguably no sport in the universe more statistically grounded than baseball, and looking at Torres’ career stats, one could deduce—like the field reporter did—that his diagnoses and subsequent treatment were performance enhancing career moves.  Prior to 2009 his highest batting average was .220, he struggled in 2004, and was sent down to the minors for a couple years before coming to the Tigers in 2007, then the Giants in 2009, when he batted .270.  This season with the Mets his salary is $2,700,000 [3].

In the season prior to the amphetamine ban there were only 35 exemptions, of which 28 were for ADHD medications such as Ritalin or Adderall.  In 2008, 111 exemptions were filed, of which 103 were for ADHD medications.  This can’t be coincidental, and yet relative to steroids, nobody really cares.  Torres and the hundred-or-so others did nothing wrong by the rules, but the rules changed.

In other contexts, this type of medical gamesmanship is little different than the well-documented motives of college-panicked prep schoolers and their helicopter parentslooking for an edge during finals, or for extra time to take the SAT.

Leveraging

In our competitive meritocracies of academia, sport, and essentially life, many people reason that it is their right to leverage whatever resources they need to in order to compete.  Athletes, college students, porn stars, truck drivers, and military servicemen and servicewomen are all leading concurrent examples of occupational performance enhancing drug use in fiercely competitive career- or life-determining arenas.  Yet elite athletes are arguably the most scrutinized.  Professional athletes are also perhaps the wealthiest or best-resourced among those populations, thus they are able to—and often do—utilize expensive, cutting-edge, or idiosyncratic procedures to improve or prolong their careers.  “Biologic medicine” (e.g., blood spinning) seems to be the doping-agency approved treatment du jour, with elite athletes like Kobe, A-Rod, and Rafael Nadal (among many others) making infrequent trips to a clinic in Dusseldorf, Germany—one of the few to offer the suddenly-popular biologic procedures.

It seems the debate surrounding these somewhat-analogous examples of performance enhancement operate along contrasting ideals: in America we abhor drugs and value clean competition and fairness.  At the same time—this being America—we value freedom, even if that includes the freedom for each of us to decide what’s in our own best interests in order to succeed.

Tomorrow, part two will delve deeper into the controversial present and uncomfortable future of performance enhancement in sport and culture: on jocks, gender, and genes, oh my!


[1] Except maybe when they experimented briefly with QuesTec, the computerized camera system intended to standardize the strike zone.  Remember when Curt Schilling smashed a QuesTec camera with a bat when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2003?

[2] Which reports speculate was attributable to using human growth hormone.

[3] Nevermind his current batting average.  He’s 34.

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