Thursday, August 11, 2016

Athletics and Ambiguity

So, the Olympics have gone pretty well so far - at least from the American perspective. The US is way out in front in the medal count and the swimming - the #1 feature of prime time coverage in the first week - has been an unquestionable success. I'm glad to see the narrative has been largely on great feats of athletics and not on the drama NBC so often likes to imbue these events with.

There was a little trouble with Lily King and her comments on doping becoming a new Cold War, USA vs Russia thing, but those blew over pretty quickly. I'm glad a young athlete has the courage to speak out and make a statement - it's exactly the kind of thing we want a 19 year old to do. I was a little troubled, though, that nowhere, does it seem, is NBC going to address the complexity of issues that come along with this Russian doping problem.

It'll likely come up again as Track and Field takes off in the second week, since Russia's entire track team was banned from the games. I'll say up front, I was and remain supportive of the move to ban all Russian athletes from the Games. Yes, it is an unfair punishment for athletes that were never involved in doping, but really Russia was the one making it unfair for them - and bland punishments like this one do nothing to discourage the same kind of thing going forward. The IOC left it up to individual sporting federations to rule on Russian participation. Most sports, like swimming, reviewed athletes on a case by case basis, with some pretty nebulous criteria, before allowing participation. The ambiguity is troubling.

At the same time, the ambiguity of a state-sponsored doping program is troubling, too. Julia Efimova, the Russian swimmer King picked her verbal fight with has been banned twice for doping offenses. King made the case that no one (including US track star, Justin Gatlin) previously caught doping should be able to compete ever.

It's a harsh, but certainly understandable position. Especially in a modern athletic environment where most legitimate supplements have third-party testing and verification so those "it must have been contaminated" excuses we've heard from baseball players over the years don't hold weight anymore. At the same time, a situation like Russia is complicated. Again, King is 19 - she's supposed to think in black & white; I'm just glad she feels bold enough to speak. She's also spent her life in the US athletic environment, which is the most democratic in the world. Usain Bolt was injured for the Jamaican Olympic trials, but they still put him on the team - US athletes never get that special treatment, even the biggest stars; you have to perform to earn your spot.

It's not the same in other place. Russia, especially, as we've seen, has a large state presence in sport. Athletes are chosen, sometimes, for political reasons over performance. In the instance of a state-sponsored program like this, the ultimatum of "take this supplement or never compete for Russia again," isn't all that far-fetched. Efimova and any of the other Russian athletes involved didn't exactly have the clear cut choice PEDs are so often made out to be.

We laugh about the long-standing world records set in the late 70's and 80's by eastern bloc athletes - especially female track athletes and how they're so nearly impossible to break because of the state sponsored doping programs at the time. The athletes become the villains in those stories like Drago in Rocky when more than likely they were taken from their families at a young age, when athletic aptitude was first spotted, and had their lives run for them as they rose to prominence. I'm not saying that Putin was holding a gun to someone's head and forcing a strange powder into their smoothie, but it's also not like an after-school special. Things are complicated.

You can add to that the very real belief by not a few people that everyone is still doping, especially track sprinters, and when coupled with national pressure, there's very little incentive not to go along.

You can make the ambiguity argument for Gatlin as well. He got caught twice, served a long suspension, but seems genuinely the victim of ignorance and bad coaching. His offenses were at the height of widespread doping and well before athletes had real tools for taking responsibility. That doesn't mean he's clean, though - he may simply be doping because it's the only way for him to win and make a living. We just don't know. No one thought cyclists were doping either, right up until they found out literally every single one of them was doing it. It's this ambiguity that makes modern athletics so beautiful and terrifying.

NPR had an author on this week, talking about how performance enhancing drugs were considered a normal and necessary part of professional athletics right up into the 1960's. To do amazing things, people expected athletes to use as much science as was available - and trusted them to judge for themselves how they treated their own bodies. Yes, this was before TV and money was really involved, and it was prior to understanding the long-term effects of these substances - but that only adds to the ambiguity, it doesn't lessen anything.

On top of all that, you have the delineation of what's ok and what's not. Laser eye surgery can correct vision beyond "perfect," improving sight beyond what a "normal" person would have. Is that an unfair advantage? The same might go for advanced blood transfusion techniques - which some sports ban and others allow. What about gene therapy and medical science coming down the road?

It's never, ever going to be cut and dry. Shoot, the boxing, rugby, and the NFL have to worry about whether playing the sport itself is too great a danger to athletes, let alone any of the other additions or performance enhancers that might be involved. We're all going to draw a line somewhere - and I want Lily King to keep doing it and talking about it - but we need to be very careful about making heroes and villains out of this whole thing. We've got to have rules - I think Russia got off too easy in this whole mess. At the same time, we have to remember: in sport, we want things to be simple and definitive, it just never is.

Athletics and ambiguity always go hand in hand.

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