I was watching “The Sports Reporters” this morning on ESPN. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, a panel of 4 reporters sit in a round-table format and debate 3 pressing issues in the sporting world. Two of this week’s stories caught my attention for their similarities (in my view) and how different the reporters’ reactions to them was.
Story A was drawn from a very common pool for this show, the blight of steroids in Major League Baseball. Story B stuck with baseball, being about how the Yankees were barely holding on to first place despite how much money they had spent building their roster, the type of story I normally tune out for. But what really caught my attention was the last story. Story C was about swimmer Michael Phelps losing to Paul Biedermann and especially the effect that Biedermann’s new speedsuit had on the race. But the reporters made light of the subject, joking about how “maybe they should swim naked” and “since when do swimmers get to trash talk about swimsuits”. I really feel that they missed the bigger point. That being:
Story A and Story C are really the same story.
Both are example of better competing through science. Why is one okay but the other not? Why can swimmers wear body suits that let them cut through the water with almost no friction? Why can bicyclers ride bikes made of space-age, almost weightless materials that let them power up steep hills like nothing? Why can golfers have clubs with giant heads (and equally giant sweet spots) that let them rip at balls harder with less penalty than anyone in history?
Okay, you say, but there is a difference between equipment and things that change your body. I will accept that with one caveat. The biggest argument that the anti-steroid crowd uses is the sanctity of the historical records. That argument has to be given up if you are going to say that it is legit for old records to be beaten by new technology.
So let’s talk about things that affect the body. Diets and workout techniques are scientifically designed to maximize performance and allow athletes to compete for much longer careers. Surgical and rehabilitational advancements allow people recover from injuries and other health conditions more quickly and with less long term effects. In fact there are some surgeries, such as the Tommy John’s procedure common among baseball pitchers, that can actually improve performance.
So my question is, why is a surgical procedure that allows an athlete to return to the field faster a great and wonderful thing, but pharmaceutical techniques that do the same thing verboten?
Long term health effects? Well, I have two responses to that. The first is simply to ask Andre Agassi about his knees. Athletes put tremendous amount of strain on their bodies, causing long term health effects no matter what. My second response is a little bit more nebulous and hard to prove, but it is something that I absolutely believe.
I believe that steroids’ negative health effects arise in large part because they are illegal. If they were administered by a team doctor with a full knowledge of the athlete’s medical history instead of in a shady back room, the athlete would be much better off.
My last point is to take a minute and think about the future. One of the largest areas of active research in the pharmaceutical industry is the development of anti-aging drugs. It is simply naive to think that some of the drugs that come out of this field will not be “performance enhancing” for athletes. So the question then will be why is it illegal for athletes to use drugs which will be available to the general population? And what will happen when a naked amateur swimmer beats Michael Phelps no matter what kind of swimsuit he’s wearing?