Entertainment On Steroids

I got back into the gym for the first time in a long time this week. I enjoy powerlifting, so even though I’m not very good at it (yet) I’m already looking forward to my next gym session. In the meantime, I’ve been watching replays of the Olympic weightlifting events at London 2012 to sate my appetite for the barbell.

Olympic weightlifting is one of those sports that exists under the persistent dark cloud of doping, for the simple reason that — like athletics and cycling — pharmaceutical assistance provides such a clear and direct advantage. Doping won’t help you dribble like Cristiano Ronaldo, or hit a tennis ball like Roger Federer, but a bigger cardiovascular engine will always help you sprint faster and last longer on two feet or two wheels, and stronger muscles will always help you lift heavier.

As sports fans, it’s easy to believe that Ronaldo’s genius on the pitch is “real” and hard to think of how it could possibly be artificially supplemented by doping, while it’s easy to imagine steroids being behind Ilya Ilyin’s élan on the London 2012 platform, and therefore hard to believe it’s “real” (which, as we now know, it wasn’t).

Ilya Ilyin stood on the highest step of the podium at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games in the men’s 94kg category, a category that piqued my interest because in 2016, six of the top seven finishers at the London 2012 Games were retroactively disqualified for doping after retests of samples turned out to be positive. Saied Mohammadpour of Iran, who finished fifth on the day, ended up being awarded the gold medal; Tomasz Zielinski of Poland, in ninth place, received the bronze — despite having been disqualified from Rio 2016 for testing positive for spironolactone.

What Counts As Doping?

I started taking an interest in road cycling in 2008, reading cycling biographies and learning about the sport. Obviously, in 2008, the biggest legend in the sport was Lance Armstrong. That’s where I started: I read about Armstrong, about his rivalry with Jan Ullrich, about how his manager Johan Bruyneel and he constructed a team and a racing schedule oriented exclusively towards winning the Tour de France. I found videos of some of Armstrong’s greatest moments: the “Look” he gave Jan Ullrich on L’Alpe d’Huez in 2001, cutting across the grass to avoid Joseba Beloki’s crash in 2003, crashing himself and then his furious pedalling to win the stage at Luz-Ardiden, also in 2003.

I read about how the 1999 Tour was supposed to be a “Tour of renewal” after the Festina Affair in 1998, when Festina’s soigneur Willy Voet was caught with EPO and other doping paraphernalia while crossing the Belgian-French border, and how it led to the Festina team being kicked out of the 1998 Tour and the discovery that Christophe Bassons was a squeaky clean rider on a dirty team. I read about how Armstrong confronted Bassons at the 1999 Tour and how Bassons quit professional cycling shortly after.

When Jonathan Vaughters formed Team Slipstream (now Team EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale), with the specific goal of competing cleanly and transparently at the highest levels, I thought it was funny that this objective even needed to be expressly stated. I read David Walsh’s From Lance to Landis, and Floyd Landis’s Positively False, and David Millar’s Racing Through the Dark, and Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race. In the comments section of Velonews, I saw how other cycling fans regarded certain Tour riders and performances with suspicion, and I started to understand that to be a cycling fan meant understanding doping.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), funnily enough, doesn’t seem to have a simple layman’s definition of doping. In the World Anti-Doping Code, WADA says:

Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as “the spirit of sport.” It is the essence of Olympism, the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s natural talents. It is how we play true… Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.

In effect, WADA’s definition defines doping by what it isn’t: it isn’t sporting, and it isn’t sport. So, if we want to think about what counts as doping, we first have to address the question of what sport is for.

What Is the Point of Sport?

I like Wikipedia’s definition of sport:

Sport (BrE) / sports (AmE) includes all forms of competitive physical activity or games which, through casual or organised participation, aim to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing enjoyment to participants, and in some cases, entertainment for spectators.

This isn’t the only definition of sport, and Wikipedia’s page on sport gives as good an overview as any of the history and ideals of sport. I won’t go into detail here; the definition above will do for our discussion.

The idea that doping is contrary to the spirit of sport, I think, is rooted in two different convictions that need to be addressed separately:

  1. Sport is about achieving maximum performance within the constraints of an athlete’s natural abilities; doping introduces an advantage external to an athlete’s natural capabilities.
  2. Sport is about seeing which competitor can come out top on an even playing field, and doping gives competitors an unfair advantage over non-doping competitors.

These are separate considerations: #1 has to do with why testosterone supplementation is prohibited while protein supplementation is commonplace. It’s a question that I personally find very interesting, but I’m not going to explore it here. In this post, I want to discuss #2, specifically this scenario:

If Everyone Is Doping, Does Doping Still Confer an Unfair Advantage?

When Lance Armstrong went on Oprah in 2013 to discuss his doping as a professional cyclist, he was derided for having looked up the definition of “cheat” to figure out if he was cheating:

Oprah Winfrey: Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?
Lance Armstrong: At the time, no. I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, I’m a cheat, I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.

Well, it’s true that in his case, doping was levelling the playing field, and not conferring an unfair advantage. If you know that everyone is doping (and it’s worth noting that even in the dirtiest days of cycling, we know that at least one rider was absolutely clean: Christophe Bassons), then obviously the answer is no. There is no unfair advantage. Sure, there are points we can argue (is everyone using comparable doping protocols? Does everyone have access to the same doping resources?) but in a purely theoretical situation where every one has equal access to doping and the same willingness to dope, doping would not confer an unfair advantage. (There's this whole argument we could make about super-responders, but I won't go there today.)

So why do fans feel affronted by doping revelations? (I’m leaving out non-doping competitors from this discussion — it’s obvious why they’re angry.)

Breaking the Spell

As a cycling fan, I remember feeling disillusioned about the sport as I learnt about widespread EPO usage and blood doping within the professional peloton. I thought about the Armstrong performances I’d seen, and felt taken for a chump. It didn’t matter to me that Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Joseba Beloki and the rest of the peloton might also have been doping. It didn’t matter that the outcome might have been exactly the same had nobody been doping. What mattered was that I’d thought I’d been watching one thing (cycling on paniagua, or “bread and water”), when in fact I had been watching quite another.

When I watched the replay of the men’s 94 kg Olympic weightlifting at the 2012 London Olympic Games, I did so with the full knowledge that the results had been proved to be farcical. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I’d feel that the event was a sham because the men were lifting doped, that what I’d be seeing was in some way less real, less noteworthy, less valid.

So I was surprised to find that I was still intensely invested in the lifters, that I still rooted for them to make each lift, that I still felt each success and each failure as keenly as at any other sporting event I’d watched.

This got me wondering what exactly it was about this event that I still enjoyed, while watching replays of Armstrong wins in 2008 was a source of disillusion. If anything, the knowledge that the weightlifters had doped freed me to enjoy whatever athleticism was on display, instead of wondering whether that athleticism was “real” or not.

It occurs to me that this is not unlike the contract between actors, filmmakers, directors, documentarians, etc. and their audiences.

In Exposed by the Mask, the famed theatre director Sir Peter Hall explains why audiences will sit and watch something totally made-up:

All the words in the theatre that define truth are of course expressing a central paradox: we are watching something that is not true at all, and we know it. The actor is always pretending. The stage is not reality, but a metaphor and the words are predetermined by the playwright. But an audience’s praise is for the intensity of the deception. If it is acute enough, their imaginations will be fulfilled and they will have a satisfying evening. This is a sensitive and intricate contract and when it is broken there is acute disappointment, even anger. A bad film irritates or provokes the giggles. A bad performance with live actors appalls and embarrasses. An audience feels foolish if the performance is not sensible and they cannot believe in it.

Ages ago in college, I wrote a little essay that I titled The Unbelievable Truth, in which I extended this idea to explore how documentaries convince their audiences to believe extraordinary stories. In it, I wrote that:

If the contract of most drama requires a rigid and unnatural form, then the contract of the documentary requires veracity. The audience agrees to be engaged in the material on the condition that the events portrayed did happen, that everything that happens in front of the camera has some basis in reality — not simply an emotional or spiritual reality, but a factual reality that can be independently verified. That is a documentary’s mask, perhaps the most rigid and unbending mask of all — the material must be rooted not only in truth, but in fact.

This is part of the appeal of the Olympics: we watch Olympic events like athletics, artistic gymnastics and weightlifting because we want to see superhuman feats of speed, strength and control — but only if these superhuman feats are actually in some sense “human”, because that’s exactly what makes them extraordinary.

We don’t want to watch these events and think, “I can’t believe humans can do that!” only to discover later that — of course — humans can’t actually do that without some kind of pharmaceutical assistance.

When that happens, we feel foolish, disappointed and angry not because of the doping, not because of the cheating even, but because of the deception. We feel that someone went out there with the intention of deceiving us. That’s what inspires the disillusionment.

If you watch an athletic event in which you know that the majority of the contending competitors have doped and have been punished, then you are watching the same sport as the one they’re performing, and the element of deception is stripped away. At least, then, you can quiet the suspicious voice asking if you’re being duped, and instead enjoy what you’re seeing.

This is something I want to explore further: the connection between sport and theatre, and the unspoken contract that makes them possible.

One Final, Floating Thought

In Exposed by the Mask, Sir Peter Hall said something else that I often think about:

Children get very angry with any other child who will not maintain the group fantasy… anyone who breaks the spell… is ostracised.

Children often play-act and indulge their imagination, but even that free-flowing play has implicit rules that everyone is expected to follow. That makes me think of how different sporting cultures regard their respective black sheep: professional tennis, for instance, by and large shunned Maria Sharapova after her positive test for meldonium, because she had shattered the collective illusion that tennis was a clean sport.

And professional cycling’s treatment of Bassons? That’s easy. The peloton shunned Christophe Bassons because he shattered the collective illusion that everyone was doping.