Performance enhancing drugs are nothing new to Olympic sports. We vilify the users and quickly label athletes as white hats and black hats, but it’s not that simple. There are layers upon layers of chemical use in professional sports and many of the offenders we read about in the headlines are separated from their clean peers only by technicalities and razor-thin margins of ethical behavior. Johnson tells us not to hate the players, but the game itself.
Back in 1904, on a hot August day, Charles Hicks made his way along the hot and dusty 24.85-mile marathon course in St. Louis, Missouri. By mile 14, Hicks was suffering from severe dehydration. He passed the only water stop at mile 12. He was determined to bring home an Olympic gold medal. So, he did what any athlete might do at the time and called for his doctor.
The doctor didn’t give the pleading Hicks any water. Instead, he was given a dose of egg-whites and strychnine. Strychnine is more commonly known as rat poison. But, on that day, it helped temporarily revive Hicks. Later in the race he would receive more strychnine, more egg whites, and a good dose of brandy to propel him to victory. His gold medal race was an example of modern science meets gutsy racing. Nobody took issue with the performance enhancing drugs he used to win the race. It was all part of the audacious marathon experience.
Spectators have an appetite for extraordinary performances and athletes have pressures exerted upon them to perform at ever-increasing levels of achievement. Pressure can be political, financial, or personal. An athlete who trusts their coaches and doctors to navigate the labyrinth of performance enhancing drug regulations can unexpectedly find themselves in big trouble. And, an athlete who does not trust their coaches and doctors can find themselves losing the edge they need to perform their best.
In Spitting in the Soup, Mark Johnson writes, “…our natural habitat is an ocean of pharmaceuticals. Given this cultural reality, the odds seem remote that professional sports could carve out its own fantasy island of chemical purity.” Thus we are mired in half-measures and ever-changing lists of acceptable and unacceptable drugs. We want an even playing field, but the purpose of training is to make the field as uneven as possible.
Joe Public is ready to quickly knock the gods of sport off their podiums, and does so with perverse satisfaction and righteousness. Considering the fact that most Americans are chemically dependent to improve their lives, it seems disingenuous that we feel so disgusted by athletes who simply take advantage of chemistry to enhance theirs. Although, with luck, the desire for purity in sports might just crossover to our everyday lives and make us all consider the downsides of our dependency.
Doping is everywhere. It infects track and field, weightlifting, cycling, baseball and swimming. It can be found in high schools, colleges, and your local fitness center. In Spitting in the Soup, Mark Johnson explores the history, the issues, and the competing philosophical constructs surrounding doping and athletics. It’s messy and it’s shocking.