One of the downers of being American is our rather inward-looking attitude toward sport, a fixation on all games deemed “indigenous” while dismissing, outside of elitist circles, international pastimes that enjoy an overwhelming worldwide following. It’s taken a few decades, but after some false starts, it seems that my countrymen have finally accepted soccer (if only in the begrudging manner that most humans accept death). While this development might be credited to the realization that soccer isn’t just for undersized girlie-men, my transformation was fueled by the discovery that very attractive and talented women also toil on the pitch… and win World Cup championships! (You hear me, Sunil Gulati?) Everyone loves that, right? U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
But now that Major League Soccer is pretty-well established – so much that even David Beckham has signed up (again!) with the adolescent league – the elites, living strong on the lingering fumes of Lance Armstrong-mania and backed by a proliferation of sports networks, have of late been shoving cycling down our throats.
I can trace my lukewarm embrace of cycling to 2005, when my employer, the Discovery Channel, sponsored Armstrong’s quest for his record seventh Tour de Lance championship. Lance succeeded, natch, and I followed the team in his retirement, collecting branded gear in the manner of a diehard fan. So it happened that, on a short wall in my living room (the wall that my friends all agree should come down if ever renovate the kitchen), I hung a triptych honoring the riders of The Race 2 Replace, a now-defunct TV show.
I couldn’t have cared less about the program, which tracked the exploits of the Lance-less Discovery Channel team, but the prints – the prints! – those I loved. They’re rendered in the resplendent palette of a pulp fiction cover artist and reflect, perhaps, a smidge of socialist idealism. Even now, Yaroslav Popovych, Viatcheslav Ekimov, and Tom Danielson glower heroically across my living room, staring down both the Nazis and the three novelty decanters facing them on the opposite wall.
The decanters, anthropomorphized versions of bourbon, whiskey, and scotch, smile stupidly back at the cyclists, as if taken aback by their choice of tipples. “Not into liquor, eh?” they seem to say. “Might we interest you, then, in a little EPO?” In ’06, doping was an issue of picayune concern to casual cycling fans such as myself, who preferred to enjoy Armstrong’s feats (and, not incidentally, Barry Bonds’) with the smug belief that Americans could conquer anything. First Mexico, then the moon, and now – holy shit! – the Tour de France! (Apologies to Greg LeMond, but last I checked, he never made it with Sheryl Crow.) But then cycling purists started asking questions, and then pesky world governing bodies started checking up on those questions, and soon, ESPN decided that know-nothing sports-fans back home needed to pay attention.
Because cycling fandom comes with an unseemly catch, a malodor that is to soccer flops what rotting flesh is to a scratch on one’s finger. The caveat, of course, is the specter of rampant doping, which every year consumes tens of the sport’s finest in clouds of suspicion, if not outright suspension, and threatens the very credibility of cycling. Just yesterday, the goody-goodies at the “Supreme Court” for disputes in international athletics (Switzerland’s Court of Arbitration for Sport – laugh if you must) felled yet another Tour de France champion, Alberto Contador of Spain, and erased his 2010 title with Orwellian efficiency. The charge? Riding while hopped up on clenbuterol, a weight-loss and muscle-building supplement used by Iberian ranchers to produce tasty steaks. Yum!
I’ll spare you a play-by-play review of the past 17 months, during which an avalanche of groups either accused or exonerated the much-loved Contador, but it’s a tragicomic saga of Homeric proportions. (Trust me.) Still, what animates me is less Alberto’s tale than the role of drugs in cycling. Is it time, perhaps, to simply legalize doping? I mean, if we stopped wondering who might be cheating and just accepted that everyone might be doing it, would our enjoyment of the sport in any way diminish? How much integrity – or what concept of integrity – makes sport, well, sport?
At a time when the ancient linkage of amateurism and sport is receding ever-further into the rear view, and to the extent sport itself is just another form of entertainment, I think the ethical high ground in terms of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) has eroded to a bump in the road. For if the object of sport is regale spectators with amazing displays of physical performance, does it matter how those feats were achieved? The question reminds me of the debate surrounding the use of computer animation in film, back in the ’90s, when naysayers panned the technology as an tawdry threat to not only human actors but also the cinematic form.
Animation, they said, couldn’t recreate the full range of human emotions, nor the subtleties, and produced nothing beyond lifeless frames that torpedoed any capacity for dramatic storytelling. But then came Pixar, performance capture, and Avatar, and the public seemed to enjoy movies all the more. Look around at today’s cineplex – half of the films, it seems, are staking their box office hopes on some type of “3-D” animation.
Perhaps the comparison is too facile – real-life actors, after all, continue to be discovered, find screen-work, become stars, and fill tabloid newsreels, with animation filling a complementary niche – but I think its lessons can be adapted to cycling. Maybe there can be there can be two cycling circuits, broken down in the manner of the meat section at Safeway. Circuit one can feature the “Conventional” riders, those guys pumped up with any DNA, hormone, supplement, or drug they can get their greedy little hands on, no questions asked. I’d expect that, in the first couple of years, long-standing records of every type would be demolished. People would be amazed! Soon, bio-tech sponsors would be lining up to fund events and critics, over time, might even stop qualifying the racers’ achievements. “Humanity, only better” could be the tagline.
But the other circuit – the “lower” circuit? – would feature “Organic” riders, those committed to racing the old fashioned way, au naturale. Basically, it would be a continuation of the tour that already exists. Plus, to the extent that people thought it was the more “sporting” of the two circuits (more on this in a moment), I’m certain that it would face many of the same intrigues that plague the sport today. So why bother with it? Consider the entire plan an experiment, an attempt to determine, finally, what the market would prefer.
I have no expectation as to the outcome. Maybe folks will swarm to the Conventional circuit like smartphone owners angling toward an airport charging station. I just can’t rule out the possibility that, in a world that relies on science and technology to extend lives and make everything – and everyone – more “productive,” that a fair fight between the Conventional and Organic tours wouldn’t result in triumph for the former. I mean, isn’t much of modernity cheating, or was making fires with sticks and flints, somehow, a more wholesome way to live? The only practical check against further advancements, it seems, are the tools needed to advance.
Oh, and one more thing – our values. I nearly forgot that, there. The weight of centuries of tradition, dogma, and thought that make us accountable to our past. That’s why the idea of “sport” has any cultural currency in the first place. It’s something that we all can consume, en masse, together. And while some might consider it sporting to shoot animals from behind a blind, we all expect humans to compete on a level field of play (with the manifold exceptions of our corporatist state noted). The only arbiter of success or failure, then, is that bizarre cross-section where preparation and ability – and, perhaps, providence – meet.
I think that’s why we need for sports to remain pure, even though we have, in many ways, been improved beyond recognition like so many anthropomorphized decanters. Because if the simple achievement – if not pleasure – of riding a bike swiftly, high up in the Pyrenees, is somehow sullied, maybe everything else is tainted too. And if everything else is tainted, then what’s left to enjoy? Maybe the Conventional tour isn’t such a good idea after all.