Reports of a Russian state doping programme are jarring reminders of times when victorious athletes were offered as evidence for the superiority of political ideologies. The allegations have certainly complicated aspirations to keep drugs out of the Olympics. If your state colludes in your doping then you have only to arrange to be clean around the dates of competition.
Is a drug-free Olympics worth all the fuss? It seems obvious that the dopers will always be ahead of the bureaucrats tasked with exposing them. A more permissive attitude toward drugs seems to draw support from Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” We should expect a more exciting version of elite sport, one with faster sprinters, higher jumpers, and stronger weightlifters. Imagine the marketing possibilities of “Muscles by GlaxoSmithKline.”
An interest in what we get out of the Olympics reveals to this to be a big mistake. Olympic events are performances by human beings for human audiences. Faster, higher, or stronger isn’t always better. An actor can be very energetic in all the fight scenes but a rubbish Hamlet if he doesn’t convey the Prince of Denmark’s very human predicament. So too, doped athletes may be faster, higher, and stronger but be worse because what they do is less relevant to human spectators.
We watch the Olympics to see what beings who have the same basic biological equipment as us can do. If you’ve ever entertained Usain Bolt fantasies as you race to catch a bus or focused your mind during the final stages of an evening jog by imagining yourself as Paula Radcliffe then this ideal of sport works for you.
Bolt and Radcliffe are, athletically speaking, better versions of us. It matters to us that Radcliffe pushes up against the same human limits as those we encounter when we go running. This is why we care about her achievements. Radcliffe’s performances are, in objective terms, quite mediocre. My beat-up Toyota covers the marathon’s 42.195 kilometres faster. But no human observer seeks to imaginatively identify with my car. We have a special interest in how fast beings like us can cover that distance.
Elite sport is a fragile compromise between the extraordinary and the familiar. We enjoy imaginatively identifying with Bolt because his performances are so exceptional. Our capacity to do this depends on his being sufficiently like us. We exclude drugs simply because these are not the conditions under which almost all of us run, swim, lift, or cycle. Amateur cyclists accept that Tour de France competitors benefit from better equipment, better training programs, and better genes. The very keen among them envied Lance Armstrong his kit, but not his drugs. Here the instincts of the amateurs, the lovers of sport, should count for more than what Armstrong’s lust for glory and money motivated him to to. If EPO injection kits were routine features of amateur cycling then we would have no complaint about Armstrong. But his confessional interview with Oprah was not greeted with cheers and editorials expressing the sentiment that the law against doping is an ass. We recognize Armstrong’s performances as counterfeit quite apart from the rules of competition.
What we want matters so much because the revenues that flow into elite sport come ultimately from us. In a version of elite sport in which independently wealthy athletes compete behind closed doors they can take as many anabolic steroids and as much synthetic EPO as they like. But most athletes prefer an arrangement in which they perform for us and receive the financial rewards generated by our passion for elite sports.
The recent suspension of Russia by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is appropriate. The ban could extend to the 2016 Rio Olympics and should do so unless there are significant changes to Russian athletics. Russia’s absence would a sad loss to the Olympics as a meeting place for the athletes of all nations. But this international aspect of the event is secondary to its role as a place where elite athletes seek to be faster, higher, stronger under the same conditions that its spectators contemplate doing so.
Featured image credit: Russian flag and Olympic logo, via the President of the Russian Federation (www.kremlin.ru). CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.