A Silver Lining to Doping

News of widespread doping, corruption, and collusion within the Russian Athletic Federation and the IAAF (organizing body) has rocked the Track & Field world the last few days. My reaction (and likely that of anybody within or close to the sport) was a blasé, “Duh”.

I credit HBO’s The Wire and a passion for mafia-genre film with turning me into a jaded skeptic of any power structure, thus putting me somewhere along the analytical spectrum of pessimistic realist to conspiracy theorist while assessing any political, business, or athletic story. That being said, the Russian Federation and IAAF’s complete and systematic cheating was a bitter validation of my not-at-all-novel suspicion (Cycling fans are yawning right now) that the top levels of endurance sports management (and likely all sports, probably even more so that endurance sports… FIFA, NFL, MLB, etc. I’m looking at you) are nothing more than organized crime.

To WADA’s credit, this investigation was by all accounts a success. Going after Russia was a bit like being pitched a beachball underhand and getting to swing with one of those Vortex bats, but happily, they hit a home run by identifying all the key components: financial transactions, athlete testimonies, shadow labs, evidence of destroyed samples, etc. So, after they seemingly got full points on the exam’s gimme-question, it remains to be seen if they can move onto the tougher sections of the test. Organizations like Kenya and Jamaica clearly emit similar stenches, but it may be trickier to take down these federations characterized by less infrastructure and more starpower, and further federations like Morocco and the Soviet-Established Ethiopian Federation (yes, the Russians set up sports in Ethiopia… Why they have flown under the radar through all of this is beyond me, but I guess even Burger King got to laugh as the world demonized McDonald’s) will be even trickier given their smaller comparative size (and thus less expansive organization and easier cloaking). And then the final Bowser – certain corporations with expansive influence and financial interests in absurd athletic performances…

If the Prohibition Bootleggers, Tony Soprano, or Al Pacino collectively taught us anything (geez, does this mean that Sebastian Coe is our Michael Corleone – the suave, politically correct figurehead to transition a corrupt machine into the next generation?), it’s that inadequate regulation coupled with large profit-potential will create organized and systematic disregard for the rule-of-law. The victims in these systems are the citizens (the fans here), and punishments are quickly doled out to the mercenaries doing their job (the doped athletes). The guys pulling the strings are untouched and the guys trying to make an honest living (the clean athletes) might succeed, but many are just killed in the wake.

So, how do we reconcile with this depressing realization that athletics is a mafia-esque criminal organization? Give up sports and pick up the piano or origami or something, I guess. No, there has to be a silver lining to this madness. The reason athletics are so appealing and so beautiful in the first place is that physical competitions are a raw expression and celebration of humanity – they are tests and displays of our own our uniquely human machinery, both physical and psychological. This is clearly the reason doping is so offensive – it dirties this purity with a definitively non-human element.
Amidst the disgusting and saddening reality of cheaters in the sport, it’s hard to find a positive takeaway. I mean, not only have people been robbed of medals, prize money, sponsorship, and fame, but races themselves have been manipulated and dictated by those under the influence of aid. Therein lies a paradoxical benefit – they’ve forced the clean athletes to up the ante and push themselves further than what they otherwise would have thought possible in effort to compete.

Said another way, the dopers have expanded the perceptions of human limitations for the clean athletes. When an athlete toes the line, he or she has to try and beat everybody in the race, period. Without knowing 100% whether someone is clean or dirty, the clean athlete aspiring for greatness can only take everyone for what the world takes them as: innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, the cheats put on extraordinary performances and essentially tow (figuratively and perhaps literally) the clean athletes with them. They expand the sense of what is possible.

For example, after the 1990s and subsequently early 2000s, there was a glut of runners running under 13 minutes for the 5000m, with 12:50s becoming commonplace for success in major international races (the world record being lowered to 12:37! Ha!). It’s pretty likely that most of these performances were chemically aided, but the result was that it forced the clean athletes to accept that they had to run that fast to be successful. Today, we’ve seen some guys who are most likely clean run under 13 minutes, and certainly many more clean guys in the 13:00s (whereas in the early 2000s the US couldn’t even get 3 guys under 13:20).

The effect goes beyond just absolute performances – the drug-aided training raised the bar for the clean athletes. Lance Armstrong going out and crushing 6-8 hour sessions on the reg likely redefined training for a lot of aspiring cyclists (both clean and dirty!). Maybe some recognized that he was dirty and that they couldn’t match that, but it may have inspired them to go from 4-5 hours a day to 5-6 hours. The same could be said in running; if kids coming out of college in the US were used to the idea of running 90-100 miles per week to be successful, but they hear that guys in Africa are logging 140 miles a week, it may seem absurd, but it makes 120 seem reasonable. Furthermore, in attempt to replicate or come close the the intense training that the dopers put together, clean athletes have been forced to optimize recovery strategies in ways never examined before. Shortcomings in diet, sleep, and muscle maintenance are forced to be addressed in effort to keep up. Without drastic re-districting of human limits by other questionably-human competitors, the clean athletes would not have had the stimulus to yank their way up the development curve. This natural performance evolution therefore happened on a much faster timecourse than what would have otherwise progressed. In a Darwinian sense, dopers created an artificially hostile environment that sped up natural selection and evolutionary adaptations in training and racing!

Now, I’m not making the claim that because something is possible with drugs means that it could then be theoretically possible without drugs, but rather that human performances to date are far below what could be possible. Therefore, if we imagine a long-term scenario where you reach the absolute edge of human output in an event, drugs could surely push that edge a little further, but I think we are so far from that edge that drug-aided performances actually psychologically pull everyone, clean athletes included, a little closer to it.

In this vein, it’s my firm belief that in running, and perhaps other endurance sports (but especially running, given the completely self-powered and self-supported nature of the output), the human body is capable of SO much more that what has been done currently. The biggest variable affecting performance in a trained athlete isn’t his taper, recent training patterns, exact sleep schedule, etc. but rather the mental state that he or she is in and what he or she believes to be possible (which can often be dictated or framed by the aforementioned factors). Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of perception of effort has begun to corroborate this, and Matt Fitzgerald summarized these sentiments nicely in his recent book How Bad Do You Want It?

Finally, apart from the de facto psychological and perceptual contributions of dopers to the sport, there is an actual physical barrier they’ve literally sliced through for all competitors: the air (i.e. breaking wind). This effect is a little different across the sports. In cycling, this effect would have in significant tactical implications: you could imagine race scenarios where dirty teammates pull along clean teammates or a clean athlete uses a dirty athlete’s slipstream to close a time gap. There’s a fun thought experiment in ethics for the clean athlete… In a track race or a road race, a clean athlete can tuck into the slipstream or zone out behind a doped athlete, theoretically being provided an artificial benefit. Second-hand doping?

The initial implications of that notion make me sick to my stomach, but I reconcile by putting those mobile Petri dishes on the same level as a pair of shoes or the track surface – external physical components of the competition. If this seems a little inhuman, deal with it, as those bastards already forfeited their homo sapien card for the epo sapien variety when they pumped their blood with extra RBCs and gave themselves a few more androgens than nature dictated.

These infinite mental scenarios, bottomless speculations, and confusing extrapolations are one of the reasons we hate drugs so much – they introduce confounding variables to performances and races in sports that should be beautifully simple combats of human physiology. In a cycling race defined by mind-boggling complexities of tactics, cheaters can blow everything up and have obviously altered decades of plotlines dramatically. How many people in championship track races have not only been kept off the medal stand, but left out of the finals due to absurdly inhuman scripts written by chemists?

The aforementioned “contributions” of dopers to the sport are merely my own sadly optimistic attempts to reconcile with an otherwise atrocious problem. The drug culture has ruined lives, robbed honest heroes, and tarnished beauty. Why doping offenses are not prosecuted criminally as theft is still beyond me, given that the cheaters are breaking the law of the sport and literally monetarily robbing the person behind them (not to mention the intangible emotional larceny). So, it’s with extremely bittersweet sentiments (think like 95% cacao dark chocolate – just barely palatable) that I muse over this “silver-lining” of enhanced perceptions of ability afforded to us by the cheaters.

Maybe the true silver-lining of doping is ultimately the less-tangible psychological benefit enjoyed by clean athletes. That is to say, they do not have the stress of managing their “cycles”, the anxiety of test results (even if they’re 99% sure they’d be in the clear, there is still a psychologically taxing sliver of doubt that would be in their minds), or the logistical challenges of maintain and transporting all these chemicals. I get overwhelmed by the complexities of training and recovering without having to deal with all that nonsense. Think about not only having to decide when and what workout to do, but how that stimulus is going to interact with when and what chemical you’re introducing. The potential for error is exponentially magnified, and the probability of enhanced performance is certainly tapered below our assumption of absolute benefit. Further, the subsequent anxiety seems kindof undesirable, and this isn’t even touching on the long-term health effects with which the dopers are going to enjoy in the coming years (like multiple heart-attacks before age 50).

I have to believe that being clean is so much less stressful, and I really hope that the clean athletes embrace this small win, don’t not get worked up about what they can’t control, and revel in the stress that they haven’t imposed upon themselves.  Heck, think of being clean as the counterfactual: you’re avoiding performance-degrading hormones! This begs a nearly comical thought-experiment: if an athlete is injecting hormones (EPO, testosterone, etc.) into his system to benefit his performance or enhance his training capabilities, the stress (even if it’s subconscious) from the complexity and illegal-nature of this regimen likely causes an uncontrollable rise in undesirable hormones (namely cortisol) as a response, thereby negating some of the benefit. No masking agent for stress?  Sorry I’m not sorry.

So, maybe there are a few nuggets of positivity for the clean guys and gals to reflect on. Having to do business in an industry controlled by the mafia must be more than a little frustrating, but I really do think that despite the couple percentage points gained by drugs, humans are actually capable many more percentage points naturally, we just haven’t realized it yet. So, to everyone out there doing it clean – you’re better than you think you are and enjoy the lack of complexity-induced stress that accompanies drugs. For these athletes committed to training and performing without chemical aid, a corrupt playing field may be a tough pill to swallow. But that’s the beautiful thing about the clean athletes – they choose not to swallow it. They’ll keep doing what they do for the same reason recreational athletes do it – for the love of the game, for the thrill of venturing into the physiological and psychological unknown, and for the indescribable joy upon discovering that we can be better than we ever thought possible.

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