Ben Singer ’09: Unnatural Limitations

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

During the Beijing Olympics this past month, if you finished a race and didn’t break a record, you probably weren’t going home with a medal. Viewers grew so accustomed to seeing world records shattered that it practically became a formality. Admittedly, modern training techniques and improved race gear (such as the LZR suit in swimming) make the comparisons of today’s record holders to those of yesterday difficult. The general perception is that these modern advances matter, but are acceptable because all athletes have equal access to them. As long as the playing field is level, it’s within the rules.

On its surface this logic explains why athletes who use illegal performance enhancing substances, like Marion Jones, are looked upon poorly even in spite of record-breaking performances, while those such as Michael Phelps are unquestionably heralded as great performers. If you dope, you break the level playing field, and you break the rules.

I don’t have a problem with this logic. I just think what’s considered a level playing field should be examined a little more closely. As far as I can tell, a truly level playing field is one where nobody starts off with any advantages over anyone else. Obviously, this is a ridiculous expectation because individuals will always have different physical and mental capacities. Some people will always be smarter than others; some will be faster runners than others. What I think we like to strive towards is a physically-level playing field where the only inequalities among athletes is how hard they train, how much they are able to push themselves given equal physical limitations. In essence, the one who works hardest and gives the most is the winner.

Whether everybody thinks of that type of level playing field as their ideal or not doesn’t matter. In reality, Michael Phelps might be able to reach higher levels of performance than any other swimmer without trying as hard because he was born with a body more adept at maneuvering through water. In reality, Usain Bolt can blow away the competition in the 100-meter dash even when he doesn’t try for the last few seconds. The point is that people are not born with the same characteristics nor the same abilities.

Why is it that we laud athletes who are genetically advantaged while we chastise those who try to gain the same advantages artificially? There’s nothing wrong with this reaction. You could make a great argument that sports are the celebration of individuality and that uneven genetic limitations are part of that glory. However, what you can’t ignore is that the current way we congratulate our athletes rewards their uneven genetic differences.

In a modern culture that emphasizes the values of a meritocracy, it seems odd that athletics is an arena where we still cheer for the innately superior. I understand that it is impossible to control for these advantages and create a truly equal playing field in sports, let alone most other aspects of the world. Even if it were possible, doing so might not be so ideal, as anyone who has read “Harrison Bergeron” is well aware. But what remains so odd is the acceptance and glorification of natural inequality and the total vilification of unnatural inequality. Some argue that the reason for this vilification is because of the damaging side effects of current performance enhancing drugs. If young people idolize Marion Jones, and use steroids to get better, they may be incurring irreversible damage to their bodies in the process. That’s a common reason.

I don’t buy it. At least, not as the primary reason. If there were a form of steroids available without any side effects, would it be condoned and regulated in professional sports, just like the LZR suit in swimming? Unlikely. Both are artificial, both enhance performance, and both would be available to everyone, maintaining the level playing field. But I think the reason such enhancements would never be condoned is because they intrinsically alter the way your body behaves for non-medicinal purposes. You can take off a swimsuit; you can’t take off your quadriceps. So, what may frighten people most about performance-enhancing drugs is that at some point they will no longer be able to tell the difference between what is natural and what is artificial. Perhaps there won’t even be a difference. And even a society in which the use of prescription drugs is increasingly widespread has limits for how much it is willing to tinker with its humanity.

Ben Singer ’09 does not condone or encourage taking off your quadriceps.