About 150 years ago: a teacher in the US cuts holes in two peach baskets, suspends them at either end of a gym, and thereby invents a new winter craze, basketball. The sport spreads across the country, spurred on by feats of incredible speed and spectacle. And no wonder, for the quintessential sport had been invented at around the same time as that other indispensible modern pleasure, refined cocaine, and the best teams were off their toot all the time. It took decades for the sport to return to its exciting early achievements.
Such white line fever was not the only encounter between drugs and sport before the Lance Armstrong era, of course. It’s obvious from a whole slew of records from the post-war Olympic years, when the East Germans and others looked like sacks of steroids. No one is innocent about what’s gone on for decades, but with the series of Australian doping scandals coming on top of the Armstrong mega-scandal, some line has been crossed.
That’s not merely in Australia; the country has such an image as the place of sport that revelations of widespread doping have echoed far and wide. Beyond the usual gloating in England, there’s been a degree of bewilderment — if the Aussies, usually held up as the model of honest (ie. dimwitted) commitment to sport, can’t be trusted, what remains?
What indeed? As sport has gone from being merely big business to global mega-business, the science of pharmacology has kept pace, allowing for ever more sophisticated approaches to the practice of doping. The only response has been to create a regime whereby sportspeople are more or less owned by the industry, obliged to be ready for testing at a moment’s notice. The contest becomes one as much of timing and molecular design of chemicals as it does of the activity itself. This is widely regarded as merely a series of additional nuisances piled on top of an unchanging activity. It is worth asking whether it does not mark something more radical, the end of sport.
By “the end of sport” I don’t mean that the actual activity will cease. Yoked to big media, it is essential to filling its endless hours. The natural and basic enthusiasm for the activity is then reinforced through relentless advertising for people to identify with. The more routinised and de-physicalised life becomes, the greater role spectator sport comes to occupy in people’s lives. But beneath the appearance, the character and essence of the activity has changed fundamentally.
Sport is usually seen as gaining its power from an expression of skill, but it is not that alone. Nor is it the sheer expression of physical prowess. Rather, it is the fusion of both, and the definition of each by the other that makes it so powerful. Sport, at its initial level, expresses the full power of the embodied human in action, the combination of mind and body, of conscious strategy and instant reaction. But beneath that, what gives it an occult power, is the simple “givenness” of natural talent, of genetic uniqueness or freakdom, call it what you will.
Beyond any ability to shape ourselves, sport expresses, through uniquely given individuals, the irreducibly “given” in each of us, the anchoring in being that gives meaning to love, s-x, parenthood, much more. The more sophisticated that the pharmacology of doping becomes, the more deeply it reaches into that previously given nature. The more subtle the drug, the more it undoes that. Crude stimulants never reach deep into our nature — they simply boost in one dimension, and then wear off with a hangover.
“There won’t be anything like the four-minute mile again. Sport of this type existed for a period in history, one that’s nearly concluded.”
Designer drugs are created to target specific features of human physicality such as oxygen uptake or lactic acid build-up, and are also designed to mask themselves. The more every sportsperson becomes transformable, the more sport becomes a matter of the purely intentional and designed.
Most people recognise that, even if they can’t vocalise it — it’s the reason why bans on drugs in sport have such wide support. There’s a counter tradition — largely coming from philosopher Julian Savulescu and some of the other deeply creepy neo-eugenicist philosophers that Peter Singer loosed on the world — which argues that it should be open slather, and that athletes should take whatever they like.
But most people, unburdened by holding three university chairs (one more, and a full dining set!), recognise that such a process would suck the life out of sport. You could reasonably say that most people could not have achieved Lance Armstrong’s timings, no matter how many drugs they took. But that doesn’t matter. The revelation of drug use renders them instantly meaningless, a nothing.
The trouble is, however, that the very existence of such drugs sucks the life out of sport anyhow. Sport, in its Olympic formulation, gained its meaning from the truly extraordinary performance, from someone reaching the acme of what could be achieved by an embodied human, under any circumstances. With the peekaboo game of drug testing, we know that such achievements occur within a framework that’s applied to them, a set of limits. Technology, ie. pharmaceuticals, dominates humanity, not the other way round. Sport of this type is already over. It staggers on as a spectacle, increasingly consumed by the production of images, linked to nationalism.
When you think of the Beijing Olympics, does any one performance stand out? Or does the Bird’s Nest stadium stand for it all? There won’t be anything like the four-minute mile again. Sport of this type existed for a period in history, one that’s nearly concluded.
But that’s not the only way that sport can exist. Systematic contest and competition only really emerged in the 19th century, and in England, and it came with industrialism, and what it brought — clock time, disciplined labour, the systematic patterning of life. The Olympic movement drew on that to promote nationalism and race.
So what had once been local or partial contests became global ones, as enslaving as they were inspiring. The one type of sport that escaped was local team sports, grounded in community — and it has only been since football was lifted out of any real community relationship to be more raw material for TV that the possibility that they too might be doping arose. Undermining those real and local connections may have taken football to a higher standard, made for more spectacular events, but it has also loosened the connections that sustained it without huge amounts of cash.
Doubtless it will all stagger on as it is for a while more, but eventually how we do and watch sport will change substantially. Though basketball on coke, I would still pay to see that.