Usain Bolt says the sport of sprinting will die if runners don’t stop doping. This reflects a conventional wisdom about sports, especially track and field, that depends on two factors:
(1) Fans want to know the athletes they’re watching are bound by the natural world.
(2) As thrilling as superhuman athletic feats are to watch in the moment, they are ultimately unsatisfying if they were chemically or mechanically enabled.
There is a whole different argument to be had about how to define “doping,” and enforce the rules against it, but that is not the conversation Bolt is having. Bolt is making an argument against doping not on moral grounds, but on practical ones.
“The sport hit rock bottom last season,” Bolt told the BBC. “Now it’s moving forward. I think it’s going the right direction. I think as long as athletes understand that if they keep this up, their sports will die. And then they won’t have a job.”
That’s the way most people look at it, and it’s probably the right approach from a moral and social perspective. It just might not be true.
If sprinting is about finding the fastest (clean) man alive, then Bolt is obviously right. But it isn’t too difficult to imagine the public being interested in finding out just how fast men can get when they can take anything they want and don’t have to hide it. Again, this is not a “good idea” or a “suggestion by me,” but the hypothetical forces you to consider exactly what it is you’re tuning in to see when you watch a foot race.
If what you want to see is the actual fastest man alive, it is likely that man will be on drugs. But he will still be a man, and 9.5 seconds will still be 9.5 seconds. The reality is objective. But the meaning of it in the eye of the beholder.
Chuck Klosterman said it well in an old Page 2 column for ESPN.
My point is not that all drugs are the same, nor that drugs are awesome, nor that the Beatles needed LSD to become the geniuses they already were. My point is that sports are unique in the way they’re retrospectively colored by the specter of drug use. East Germany was an Olympic force during the 1970s and ’80s; today, you can’t mention the East Germans’ dominance without noting that they were pumped full of Ivan Drago-esque chemicals. This relationship changes the meaning of their achievements. You simply don’t see this in other idioms. Nobody looks back at Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and says, “I guess that music is okay, but it doesn’t really count. Those guys were probably high in the studio.”
I have some friends who will argue that performance-enhancing drugs should be allowed at the highest levels of sports for more or less the same reasons musicians aren’t discouraged by their record companies from using psychedelic drugs. I don’t find that to be a satisfying parallel because the physical and competitive nature of sports puts pressure on teenage athletes in a way playing music doesn’t.
I’m saying doping should be allowed in sprinting, but I’m not convinced it’s killing it either.