'Roid rant

There's a provocative post up on The Proximal Tubule about athletes taking steroids. The post summarizes and undercuts the traditional objections to to hormones and steroids, including this one:

They force otherwise clean athletes to undertake unhealthy measures to keep up (even though the "natural" measures to become a world-class athlete are just as unhealthy - do you think becoming a 300-pound NFL lineman or dedicating your life to one solitary thing is healthy?)

This is echoed by the article from the 9/10/01 New Yorker that TPT links to. The author of the piece, Malcolm Gladwell (who also wrote the Tipping Point), describes the meeting of two great milers: Roger Bannister, the laid back med student who was first to break the 4 minute mile, and today's champion, Hicham El- Geurrouj.

El Guerrouj ... trains five hours a day, in two two-and-a-half-hour sessions. He probably has a team of half a dozen people working with him: at the very least, a masseur, a doctor, a coach, an agent, and a nutritionist. He is not in medical school. He does not go hiking in rocky terrain before major track meets. When Bannister told him, last summer, how he had prepared for his four-minute mile, El Guerrouj was stunned. "For me, a rest day is perhaps when I train in the morning and spend the afternoon at the cinema," he said.

As more people are free to join the pursuit of excellence, what's needed to compete moves farther and farther from what's mainstream.... even going beyond what's healthy. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and shake one's head at the spectacle: female skaters and gymnasts with stunted development, or biathletes with cardiomegaly that will kill them in their fifties.

And the fact that many of these athletes have freakish traits and proportions to begin with doesn't seem fair, either.

But using this to justify steroids for pro athletes is a big leap. To be fair, the folks at the Proximal Tubule don't explicitly make the case for steroids or hormones. They're just pointing out that media coverage is pretty slanted, steroids aren't all harmful, and the issue is more nuanced than what's being reported.

They're right on those counts. But on the issue of whether it's cheating, there's no contest. I think what confuses a lot of people is the mixing of athlete's goals with those of the audience and the organizers. The athletes want to win, so they train hard and feel the urge to bend the rules. The public, on the other hand, wants to see who's the best. So they make rules about eligibility for competing, just as they make rules about triple axels and free throws. No one in the audience wants to see a team win because the officials blew a call, but I think the athletes would say they trained hard, the other team got breaks too, and a win is a win. I think athletes make similar excuses about steroids.

TPT points out the dichotomy between 'natural' and 'unnatural' is artificifial -- and they're right. But the designated hitter rule for half of Major League Baseball is kind of arbitrary, too. If the media reports on steroids with on a scolding, superior tone, it's because dozens of baseball's best players are, be definition, cheating. The media's entitled to be critical: they're disappointed, too. It's no different than Sammy's corked bat.

As for the big picture, though, there's no denying that the world of pro athletes is out of control. I'm just happy I'm in an field where there's no spotlight or intense competition, the gifts you're born with don't matter, and the quest for excellence doesn't drive people to chemical dependency.

Ha. Please don't touch my coffee.