Perhaps one of the most unanswerable of health mysteries is that of nature vs. nurture. Despite all of our advancements in epidemiology our top medical minds debate the true etiology of some of the most common diseases. They know the most minuscule detail of the disease process however, the proportion of genetics (nature) and environment (nurture) that contribute to diseases remains up for discussion.
Much of my approach to wellness has to do with the degree to which one deviates from their true nature. It is through first studying proper function, then dysfunction, that I have began to identify our default setting. I believe tha wellness, not sickness is the default. It is only through exposure to and interaction with all the variability of life that we come to experience setbacks in performance in the form of illness and disease. Human movement through sport is one such variable that makes life worth living yet can present some danger.
In a way, we all make a deal with life. We freely choose to participate to the fullest extent with which we are comfortable. We are well aware of the potential dangers of such day-to-day activities yet we engage in them nonetheless. If we simply opted to maximize our life in terms of time lived, we would take minimal risk and create a pretty antiseptic environment for ourselves. If, however, we truly wish to maximize our life in terms of LIFE lived, we must constantly compute cost/benefit equations in making decisions.
I hope to take a look at one such decision we may not all have to make as individuals, but we certainly must make as a society; should doping be allowed in sport?
What’s the big deal with sport anyway?
We are well aware of our competitive nature. It is no wonder that sport is one of our oldest and most universal institutions throughout human history. It has endured for countless reasons. Some scholars devote a lifetime of work to thoroughly identifying just a handful of the reasons sport means what it does to us. This has been the primary goal of the last few posts exploring the definitions for foundational elements of sport, i.e. play, games, rules, cheating, competition.
Sport is unique in that it provides an environment of equal opportunity that is impossible in real life. At the heart of every rule and regulation is the preservation of a “sporting opportunity” for every participant. There are weight classes, off-season training restrictions, standardized equipment, salary caps and any number of official attempts to create an even playing field.
But why go through so much trouble in the first place?
Sport allows us to foster and practice our faith that within us lies great potential. As athletes and spectators, we are able to express portions of ourselves that can go untapped otherwise. There are other opportunities in life to experience deep feelings of triumph, cooperation and accomplishment however, sport so neatly creates a discrete environment for all these sensations. If we fail to maintain at least an air of fairness, sport becomes little more than a matter of faith without practice. Faith, or belief, in oneself or in ones team is necessary but insufficient to fully engage participants.
For whom the whistle blows
The engagement factor brings us to the issue of doping. The participants in sport are not only the athletes. There are coaches, fans and any number of casual observers who may or may not have a vested interest in the outcome of the match. I contend that from youth recreational sports, all the way to the most elite professional sports, some, if not all, participants are at play (as defined previously here and here).
It is not difficult to argue that the kids at the park are at play when they participate in their local soccer league. The more difficult case is to be made for the athlete making millions for their participation in sport. The difficulty is further compounded if they are found to have used performance enhancing substances.
The reason I find it necessary to consider who is “at play” is because in order to judge whether or not doping should be allowed, we must first consider for whom the game is being played.
Physiological arguments aside (because the term “doping” is an imprecise term used for all means of chemical augmentation of performance whether safe or not), the idea of doping in youth sports is absurd. It is so because this is where there is the most pure representation of play. Play and doping seem to be antithetical in that there is a clearly expressed purpose in chemically affecting ones physiology in pursuit of a performance output not otherwise attainable through natural means.
But the doping we see discussed in the media is not in the real of youth sports. It is isolated to the top levels of professional competition. A case could be made that these athletes are simply maximizing performance the same way we fill up on coffee to put in long hours at the office. Adopting such a lifestyle is more directly related to poor health.
Although it can be stated that the athletes are no longer truly at play, and therefore permitted to decide which measures they’ll take in preparation for performance, it is undeniable that the rest of us, the spectators and fans, are.
We voluntarily divert resources (our time, money and attention) towards engagement in the outcome of the game. I say “outcome of the game” as opposed to “performance outcome” because it is the drama of the struggle and not simply the witnessing of proficiency that draws us to sport. We choose our team and invest much emotion towards the outcome. When athletes choose to engage in chemical performance enhancement, they undermine our investment in sport.
Of course, nobody forces us to be a fan. Each sport carries with it a rich and subjective tradition that so deeply captivates us, generation after generation. For this reason, the issue of doping must be viewed through the lens of each tradition as well as the universal fundamental aspects of sport and what it says about our true nature as humans.