Monday, October 15, 2012

The Sports-Dope Nexus

Perhaps the strongest “dope” used in the world of sports is not any kind of chemical substance but simply money: the commercialization of sports. Professionalization is just one step in that direction. Within already recognized professional sports, over-arching performance, which leads to larger contracts, temps individuals to enhance their bodies chemically—so that we have three levels in this activity: amateur, professional, and doped-professional. The last is still not sanctioned.  The variations here are complicated. The amateur who sells his or her name to a sponsor is one. In some sports prizes take the form of cash. The subject has interested me almost since childhood.

In my year of my birth Jesse Owens starred in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—and I learned, in childhood already, about Owens’ difficulties after  that event. Owens’ career began in 1933 when he obtained a track-and-field scholarship at Ohio State University (OSU)—and scholarships are, are they not, a kind of payment in kind? Another variant? In 1935 already, he fell afoul of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for having his travel expenses reimbursed by OSU disguised as payment for work in the Ohio State Legislature; this cost him a prestigious award. After the Olympics, Owens turned professional—but found that interest in him immediately waned. He had lost his continuous visibility. He said, mournfully, “A fellow desires something for himself.”

Owens came from a humble background. His story, therefore, throws light on the vaunted “amateur” status of the then typical Olympian. These amateurs were of the upper classes—their avocations subsidized by family wealth. Is that yet another variant? Professionalism, since 1936, has completely triumphed in the Olympics. The invasion of the chemicals is still a battle in progress. Will chemicalization eventually triumph too? For the moment the outcome is still in the air. In recent days we’ve seen the exposure of Lance Armstrong’s uses. Today, in the New York Times, comes the story of a small-timer, one Christian Hesch, a runner. Small-timer? Yes. He earned $40,000 in prizes over two years in road races and came out of the closet to admit using a hormone that stimulates red cell production—which in turn increases the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. On and on it goes, big name, small name, all kinds of sports. It might be likened to a pressure, an irresistible pressure on sports the practice of which at visible levels requires the non-chemical dope.

Assuming things proceed as they do—give it a decade or four—chemicalization will also be accepted. What follows after that? Well, genetic engineering promises a wealth of innovations. The ambitious parents may, perhaps even before conception, already predetermine the athletic future of their children. And sports in that strange future will be like watching weird aliens competing—with bodies bred for baseball, basketball, football, and on and on. And just wait until athletically ambitious big countries put their massive resources into the battle.

The incoherence of our culture is shown by the fact that chemical doping of athletes’ bodies is abhorred—while a woman’s right to her’s is holy writ. I suppose that sex is not yet officially a sport.

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