(by Louisa Thomas at The New Yorker)
When Thomas Hicks, an American runner, faltered near the end of the 1904 Olympic marathon, in St. Louis, his assistants gave him shots of strychnine (which is now commonly used as rat poison) and brandy to revive him. Hicks crossed the finish line after another American, Fred Lorz, but was declared the winner when it was discovered that Lorz had ridden eleven miles of the marathon in his coach’s car. The perception was that Lorz had cheated, and Hicks had not. Gaining an unfair advantage is the definition of cheating. But that hasn’t always been the case. Otherwise, Hicks’s result would have been thrown out along with Lorz’s. So what happened? The answer has something to do with the changing way we understand sports. For most of the twentieth century, the existential threat to sport wasn’t doping. It was professionalism. If an athlete competed for material gain, the spirit of sport would be tainted.
In the nineteen-fifties, speed skaters took amphetamine sulfate until they were sick. Cyclists took vasodilators; in 1960, one crashed and died. When an American weightlifting coach guessed that the Soviet lifters who were crushing records were chemically altering their bodies, he didn’t cry foul; instead, he started experimenting with testosterone injections and commercially available anabolic steroids himself, and then encouraged athletes to take them as well. In the seventies, East Germany developed a program in which athletes were given little blue pills and were told they were vitamins. Records started to fall. The I.O.C. was slow to act. It formed a committee in 1962 and started developing a list of banned substances, protocols, and eventually tests.
But it wasn’t until the 1988 Summer Olympics, in Seoul, that a doping scandal rocked the Games, when the men’s hundred-metre champion, Ben Johnson, failed a test. This was, as it happens, the first Summer Olympics at which professionals were allowed to compete. In reality, of course, athletes had been compensated in various ways for decades. American athletes were subsidized by schools; athletes within the Soviet bloc were supported by the government, allowed to train full time and given salaries for bogus jobs. What really changed things, of course, was the introduction of television, and the fantastic amounts of money that flooded the Games, and the public’s desire to see the best athletes, the dream teams, compete. How could sport maintain its idealism in the face of the intense pressures of commercialism? The problem was merely transformed. It was not a question of the soul anymore but, rather, a question of the unadulterated body. The crisis had become about drugs.
That performance-enhancing drugs represent the natural evolution and desire of Humanity to surpass its limitations. Every drug should be allowed in sports, so that everyone can used them if they want to (and accept the consequences as free beings): the ultimate fusion of biology and science, the only way to unlock our full potential.