From the very beginning, children are taught right and wrong. While concepts like political parties and religion don’t take root for years, children can identify ‘cheaters’ almost as soon as they can speak. Whether it’s a contentious game of Monopoly, a gritty game of schoolyard football, or the Tour de France, we have no problem condemning ‘cheaters’ for their actions and making their affinity for deceit known to anyone who will listen.
But why do we feel so strongly about certain forms of cheating? Whereas a hit after the whistle or a block to the back truly do affect the immediate safety of other players, what makes the American public cry foul when some Chinese gymnast may simply be a year or two too young, a crime that hurts no one? Some will tell you that children should be with their families at that age, or that their rigorous training will be detrimental to the child’s health; and while those may be valid points, what about Gabby Douglas? The American teenager who moved to Iowa when she was fourteen specifically to train, and was lauded for her decision.
What I am questioning is not so much specific rules here and there, but a philosophy in sports that certain things are unequivocally right and other things are unequivocally wrong.
Returning to the Chinese gymnastics team, controversy swirled around the alleged leg up that being prepubescent gives to a female gymnast. The Olympics have an age limit of sixteen, and, according to a New York Times article, “small bodies in the earlier stages of puberty can pull off bigger tricks in the air,” thus giving the Chinese an unfair advantage, assuming they were underage.
Let’s say that the Chinese gymnasts all were younger than sixteen — what does it matter? The Olympics are about the best in the world competing, not the best in the world sixteen and older. I know it hurts to lose, especially if some rules were broken, but no one was arguing that the Americans were better than the Chinese, only older. Besides, it’s not as if any prepubescent girl can successfully land a double handspring (forgive me if my gymnastics expertise is suspect) just because they are thirteen, they still have to put in the same amount of training while also compensating for a weaker, less-developed body. It may not be the healthiest solution, but the libertarian response to this problem would be to completely abolish the age limit, finally allowing thirteen year olds to achieve something important besides reading their Torah portions.
And what about so-called ‘performance-enhancing drugs?’ The baseball writers made a bold statement when they refused to elect Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds to the Hall of Fame, but why does taking advantage of all options seem to be morally reprehensible in the eyes of Americans? I don’t think it’s that simple.
In 1970, there was one 300-plus pound player in the NFL. In 1980 there were three. Today, there are 394 (check out this link for more info). While most, if not all, of these players have come by their mammoth weight and ox-like strength naturally, it is detrimental to their health. Joint, back, and respiratory problems are just some of the many issues caused by excessive weight, and can be just as dangerous to a man as PEDs. Additionally, the higher expected weight threshold for players sets a dangerous precedent, as evidenced by the astronomical increase in 300+ pound players. Should the NFL set a weight limit? Do they have an obligation to make the game more natural? Should new forms of weight training be deemed illegal due to the immense amount of scientific research that went into them? And when talking about blood doping in sports like cycling, what about simulations of the same situations, such as training in low-oxygen environments? In a recent article, Samuel Goldman had this to say:
What’s more, scientific nutrition, reliance on serious painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, and use of high technology (such as artificial low-oxygen environment) also have performance-enhancing effects when they are combined with diligent and intelligent training. It is unclear to me, however, what makes them more fundamentally “natural” than doping.
That is the most important part of this entire argument. To use a heavyhanded metaphor, is it not an unfair advantage for one athlete to have the funds to train in Denver’s low oxygen environment while another athlete cannot? Why can’t Lance Armstrong blood-dope when he is simply infusing his blood with oxygen, a naturally-occurring element?
I don’t know what the correct solution is for any of these problems, and I don’t think most people do either. We are in an age where technology and sports have become more intertwined than ever before, and the development of performance-enhancing techniques far outpaces testing measures. While we can fool ourselves into believing that everyone not taking drugs is doing things the ‘natural’ way, it’s simply a fallacy. We have gone too far to come back, and the only question left is whether to stand for an outmoded, abstract set of sports principles, or to write a book full of entirely new ones.
By: Andrew Eckhous