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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Are Sports For?

When I came home from school today, I turned on the tube and Chariots of Fire was on one of the HD channels. So I sat and watched it. I haven't seen it for a while, and never in HD.

A lot of people think this, the 1981 Oscar winner for Best Picture, is an overrated film. I've always liked it. I'm not sure why; my ancestry is heavily English and Scottish, so maybe that's part of it. But also, it's a very idea-heavy film, and I'm into thinking about ideas.

This is why I'm so affected by a recent ESPN Page 2 column. Jeff MacGregor, who writes This Sporting Life, asked What are sports for?

Baseball is finally having its crisis of confidence that track & field had twenty years ago. As such, baseball writers are asking philosophical questions about whether PEDs should be legal, and why or why not. As an extension, MacGregor asks what purpose modern professional sports serve: to teach moral lessons, or to provide an entertaining diversion?

Of course, the truth is both, and neither. One thing that it does is allow us to think the best of ourselves, or at least those we believe ourselves to be associated with. Watching the movie, I found myself singing along to Gilbert & Sullivan's For He Is An Englishman, feeling proud to call myself of English heritage. My college roommate once posed the question of why we feel this pride, when every nation on the earth has done horrible things to other people as well as its own. My reply was that we think of the best of our history, and hope to emulate it. For mine, it would be prevailing in WWII, after a massive struggle just to survive.

In any case, sports allow us to feel a pride at the success an athlete or team with whom we feel a connection. Examples are New Englanders and their Red Sox, or Clevelanders to their Browns, and so on in hundreds of ways. Besides a connection to our city, or school, or country, we have a connection to the fans of that same team. But this still doesn't answer the question of whether PEDs should be banned or tolerated.

Throughout Chariots, this question of what are sports for? is brought up again and again. Harold Abrahams, the outsider Jew at Cambridge, the ultimate insider's school, has to answer it multiple times. More or less, he cannot be a full man without striving to be the best he could be. As sports fans, few things incense us more than teams or athletes who give less than their best effort.

And we don't mean any mamby-pamby feel-good "oh, just so you tried your hardest" stuff. It is the driving to the very edge of your capabilities that is the essence of competing as an athlete, or watching them compete. We want to find our best (or see theirs). In other words, the true meaning of sports is not the triumph but the struggle. But that still doesn't answer the question of whether PEDs should be banned or tolerated.

The IOC banned doping in 1972 mostly because they feared literally killing their golden geese. In 1967, Tom Simpson died during the Tour de France when he took amphetamines before a mountain stage. Without controls many athletes would likely dope themselves to death. So there are those who say we should allow doping if done safely and under the supervision of a doctor--to which I reply, in what way is that easier to police than our current complete ban on doping? Given the opportunity, just enough people will take short-term gain over long-term viability to screw the whole system, which is more or less why financial markets need regulation.

But none of this gets to the real reason why the majority who don't like doping find it so distasteful. It's not intellectual, it's visceral. We must look to Eric Liddell, the Scottish long sprinter in Chariots. He was a dedicated missionary, whose wife found his running a distraction to their religious calling. In the film he told her he must continue to compete in sports because "I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure." PEDs are an attempt, as coach Sam Mussabini said, to "put in what God left out".

Yeah, yeah, excessive moralizing. I don't think so. I think it's a religious person's way of explaining an experience sports fans have with regularity and probably seek more than any other thing. It's the slack-jawed amazement we have at seeing the fantastic things athletes do. Be it Mine That Bird winning at 50-1, or a buzzer-beater 3-point shot, or a Statue of Liberty play to win in overtime, they make us ten years old again. The top two for me were seeing the Carl Lewis / Mike Powell long jump duel at the 1991 Worlds, and being 20 feet away from Tyson Gay's stunning runs at the 2007 USATF Championships.

PEDs alter hormonal profiles to ones that are unnatural, so the athletes are no longer human beings as we know them. They rob us of that awe, that child-like wonder.

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