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Saturday

Baseball's drug scandal is so 20th century

So says Simon Smith at Betterhumans.com. The tagline for the article says "...genetic modification of athletes not only to improve competition, but also to improve humanity", and while the article fails to explore this idea as fully as it could, it got me thinking.

Sports seems to have an irreconcilable conflict with the drug scandals that have plagued it for many years now. On one hand, it is widely accepted that drugs to enhance performance are wrong for a variety of reasons. First is the normal moral objections to drug use, and the resultant health risks to athletes.

The more significant objection, however, is the one based on "fairness". The thinking here goes that allowing artificial performance improvements would somehow negate the more "natural" qualities that sports is designed to test. Things like determination, training, and skill are what sports is about, not technology.

On the other hand, professional sports, from the Olympics to the NFL, is relentlessly driven by incentives to continually increase performance by minute increments. The exact shape of the sole of a shoe, tiny variations in a runner's stride - detectable only by computers - can make all the difference between 1st and 5th place. The money and prestige bestowed upon the winners translates into vast sums of money pumped into making a good athlete into a superior athlete by whatever means possible.

And, as if drugs aren't bad enough, the coming ability to use technology, including genetics to vastly improve an athlete's body and mind promise to bring this irreconcilable conflict to a point where sports as we know it can no longer survive it.

One of the best problem solving techniques I've found for resolving such a conflict is to assume, for the sake of argument, that one of the premises is false. One premise, that there are incredible incentives in professional sports to push the envelope of what is acceptable enhancement and what is not, seems unchallengable. Empirical evidence is plain that this is so. The other premise, that unchecked enhancement will undermine all that is good about sports, is based on assumptions, questionable value judgements, and little or no empirical evidence.

So lets challenge that last premise. Let's turn it around and ask what would be the result of not just allowing athletes to use performance enhancing drugs and even hardware, and instead embrace it.

Why is "natural" competition so fundamental to all that is good in sports? The thinking goes that sports is meant to bring out those inner qualities - determination, stamina, willpower, sportsmanship, etc. - qualities of the mind to which the qualities of the body and physical performance are only a means.

This is all true as far as it goes, but it ignores another valuable aspect of sport. Sports gives us all something to look up to, something to strive for. It provides a standard of both physical and mental performance that we can all measure ourselves against. But more than that , it provides a standard of what is possible.

Technology is also a measure of the qualities of mind. While individual sports acheivement is inspiring, technological acheivement is not only inspiring, it has concrete value to all of us. Entertainment has always been a primary driver of much technology that has useful or even vital applications outside of the entertainment field.

To take a crass example, whatever you might think of porn, you can thank it for the fact that you have a very inexpensive VCR on your entertainment shelf and for the fact that you can download up to the minute video of a breaking news event on a computer that has all the requisite technology built right into the operating system. Auto racing has always been a driver of vehicle technology. Many of the now taken for granted technologies that make modern family vehicles so efficient, safe, reliable, and performant were developed for and tested in the sport of auto racing. It can also be argued that NFL football has contributed to many advances in medicine, particularly that of knee replacements, which are now so routine that they are advertised in TV commercials.

Couldn't technological enhancements for sports, including drugs, surgury, and hardware, do the same for the technology of human life enhancement that NASCAR does for enhancing the family station wagon? Advancements in all these areas are coming. What better way to create and atmosphere of innovation than in the crucible of the most demanding situations a human being can find himself in? What better way to test these advancments than by pitting them against the greatest stresses our society regularly places on the human body and mind?

But would using technology to enhance performance undermine the unique qualities of sport? It would certaintly change sports, there's no doubt. The money, attention, and resources now poured into professional football and olympic sports would certainly shift to whatever sport first allows technological enhancement. The focus of acheivement would shift from the individual to the team, of which the individual athlete would be merely the most visible member. This is already true in auto racing, where the driver gets all the attention, but the team as a whole gets recognition and the rewards. The driver's individual skill is important, but is recognized as only one aspect of the total performance. Auto racing is no less competitive nor thrilling because of it.

Would football, baseball, basketball, or the olympics be less exciting and inspiring if we had to recognize not only the individual acheivment, but the technological acheivement behind ahtletes' performances? I doubt it. Those who hold to the old idea of "natural" performance will, while ignoring the technological aspects already present in equipment and computerized training and nutritional approaches, bemoan the loss of sports idols that we all could theoretically aspire to ourselves. But these idols would not disappear. The focus would merely shift to the heroes of the mind, who can create performance levels that nature can not match.

But these enhanced supermen, if that's what they become, will still be competing against other, nearly equally enhanced supermen. The individual athlete would still require all the traits of skill and character that we attribute to athletes today. No technology can replace the commitment and courage and mental focus required to implement a superior performance on the field.

Sport is already changing. Performance enhancing drugs are just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of erecting futile barricades against technology, I look forward to sports being a showcase of what technology can do for human life and abilities. I look forward, also, to the day when advances pioneered by the constant striving for better athletic achievement will become the mundane advances available to all of us, "as seen on TV".

Comments

Interesting take...

Tennis and golf are already struggling with technology, well, not tennis so much.

The scandal however is that government is paying so much attention. If the drugs are illegal, then throw the bastards in jail. If not, then it is up to the business that is baseball to regulate itself.

I can't remember the last time I watched a professional sporting event. I don't even watch the Super Bowl, just the highlights of the best adds. Why are my tax dollars going to spend time to hold hearings?

We have bigger fish to fry.

Posted by Zendo Deb at Saturday, May 21, 2005 04:12 PM

Zendo, I agree, except about the "If they're illegal". They shouldn't be, but that is a different issue. It is particularly egregious that the government is getting involved in a private business this way.

Tennis and golf have a different problem. It's not enhancement of the athletes, but enhancement of the equipment. The problem with golf is that it is not really one athlete against another, as it is in tennis, football, etc., it is one athlete at a time against the course. The new clubs threaten to eliminate the challenge of the courses, and thus ruin the competition. My solution to that would be to develop harder courses. Of course, when the clubs become laser-guided cannons with millimeter precision, then it's not really golf anymore.

I don't care about sports anymore either, but I might again if they let the cyborgs in. I guess that's why the only sports I've watched in the last 10 years or so (besides the Super Bowl ads, as you do) has been Battlebots.

Posted by kylben at Saturday, May 21, 2005 05:04 PM

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