August 17, 2008

During the Athens Olympics, a local commercial for a deodorant humorously demonstrated how well it worked under stress by showing a "stress-o-meter" as an Olympic sprinter walked out onto the track, got set for the race, ran, won, celebrated ... and then the stress-o-meter suddenly spiked as he looked up to see the drug testing sign.

(It makes a curious footnote that the sprinter in the commercial was carefully a very neutral white, though even then the vast majority of the top sprinters -- and thus most among those who had been publicly caught by drug tests -- were black.)

In the Seoul 1988 Olympics, the big sprinting rivalry was between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson. Ben Johnson won, running the 100 metres in 9.79 seconds, smashing the previous world record. (By comparison, Usain Bolt just ran the same distance in 9.69 seconds, breaking his own previous record of 9.72 and Donovan Bailey's Olympic record of 9.84.) The headlines across Canada that day carried nothing else. Ben was, as the Toronto Star worded it, BENFASTIC!

Two days later, Ben Johnson tested positive for stanozolol.

His claims that most of the other athletes were doing exactly the same thing went unheeded. The Olympics needed a scapegoat, and in Johnson they had found one. Certainly he was not innocent of having used various types of steroids to enhance his training, but the vilification of the time went far beyond simply stripping a medal and a world record. From the giddy heights of being the fastest man on earth, Johnson had suddenly been plunged into a tar pit from which he would never entirely emerge. He was never forgiven.

Yet even during Johnson's time, four of the five top sprinters were eventually found to have been using steroids at some point in their career: including Carl Lewis, who had been among the quickest to vilify Johnson. Not one of them was forced to give up medals or career. Technically, they were not caught during an actual competition.

Today, we take drug use among athletes so much for granted, it becomes a subject for humour in commercials.

I have lost track, but at the very least the silver medal women's decathalete and virtually the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team has been disqualified from these current Olympics for drug use; while the mentions of drug disqualification, current or past, can be found among virtually every national team entered into the Olympics. These days those using steroids are stripped of their medals and records, if any -- if they are caught. Unless it makes a useful newsbyte, it scarcely seems to make a footnote in the news anymore.

We also know masking agents exist, and that the field of athletic pharmacology has not slowed down in the slightest. Most athletes these days commonly assume that most of their serious competitors are using pharmaceuticals as a standard part of their training regimens, switching to something more easily masked for competitions where they are likely to get tested ... though they are always careful to avoid admitting to having done so themselves. From the public's point of view it becomes almost an amusing game, not particularly relevant anymore except insofar as it overturns a podium result. For the athletes, of course, it is deadly serious: and sometimes even deadly. There can be no sanctioned research on these new substances, and so taking them must always be a gamble: a possibility of improved performance, against ... well, no one knows anymore, exactly.

Though we are probably already starting to reap this particular whirlwind's edges, and we have quite a distance yet before we start to reach its eye.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home