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Our complex relationship with sports heroes

Alan Braunholtz

The concept of sports and fair play is an ideal we naively hold on to. Competitors playing away with only skill, heart, hard work and mental strength to decide the better man or woman is a fairy tale we want to believe. Competitors will take any advantage they can get away with. Technology provides an edge if you can afford it. Money helps buy speed. NASCAR is a test of car and driver, lighter and more aerodynamic bikes take minutes off your time in cycling, and the best skiers won’t win on slow skis.Interestingly, it’s science that’s improved human performance so much. Olympic records may have dropped steadily ever since the modern Olympics began, but this has more to do with the original amateur ideal being replaced by professionalism than anything else. Strict amateurism excludes most of humanity who have to work. An English historian researched running races in 16th- and 17th-century England. These races had large purses and professional runners made a good living. Choosing only the longer races to minimize the effects of less-precise timing and choosing the flatter of the point-to-point courses he found the top performers running four-minute miles. We like to think we’re better than our predecessors though there’s no real reason athletically (or mentally for that matter) that we should be. Improvements in equipment and scientific training in the last 30 years are responsible, not our genetics.Not all technological advances are welcomed, though. Skis have strict side cut and binding height rules, ski jumpers have length-to-body-weight ratios, pro baseball rejects aluminum (and corked) bats, bikes can only be so light and Formula 1 race teams have books of compliance specifications. Pushing the boundaries of these regulations is a game of cat and mouse and, while technically cheating, it rarely raises the condemnation that drug use does. Messing with the body is off limits, though LASIK eye surgery to get better than 20/20 vision is OK.On-field cheating also gets a pass in the moral outrage category. The spitball is a good pitch in baseball if no one notices too much. Commentators constantly praise well-disguised pushes, holds, handballs and even blatant fouls as “smart play” if it helps a competitor win.Drug use is a form of cheating we aren’t ambivalent about – even if the drugs in question aren’t illegal or even against the rules. At the time, no athlete broke a law or a rule in the Balco/THG case, but it’s still seen as absolutely wrong. We have a hysterical reaction to the word “drug,” though we rely on caffeine as a performance enhancer in our own lives every day.Perhaps we’d be better off viewing drug cheats as no better or worse than any of the other rule-breakers in sports. Punish those who are caught but don’t allow a paranoid fear to undermine our whole marvel at what the human body is capable of doing when pushed by competition.Naïve innocence may be a happier stance than disgruntled cynicism. Hitting a fast-ball, leaving the best in the world flat-footed at the net, standing up defenders like a hummingbird, swishing a fall-away 3 pointer, etc. are hard no matter what. Give the benefit of the doubt, until proved otherwise. Personally, I like to think the best are genetic freaks who are that good and suspect that there’s more drug use in those slightly lesser mortals in the B leagues who are futilely aspiring to that level.Practically, it’s going to be a never-ending cat chasing the mouse game unless there’s a cultural change in our win-at-all-costs attitude. At present, for the cat to get ahead we’d have to make cheating in sports a real crime with real law enforcement, throw out the Fourth and Fifth amendments to our Constitution – and sports isn’t worth that. Do you want to enter a police state every time you choose to compete? The Supreme Court ruled that school children can be drug tested if they participate in almost any extracurricular activity. I think the case involved someone wanting to join the band. Whatever happened to privacy and presumption of innocence? Not a great way to educate children on the freedoms we supposedly hold so dear. We love sports and like seeing “our” athletes exceed the normal boundaries of human performance. We reward them with such fame and respect, then wonder why they cross the line to get their pats on the head. Indifferent cynicism to professional sports could be an improvement. It’d remove the rewards of respect and money, reduce the incentive to win at any cost, lead to healthier competitors (physically and mentally) and a healthy society that saw the constitution as more than an impediment to a fair game or band practice.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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