Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why the Olympics need a new category of competition.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal in the men's 4x100 medley relay. It was a spectacular race, and it certainly reaffirmed my conviction that Phelps is probably the best human being to ever (purposefully or not) enter the water. Even if anthropologists find some failed version of the human species that had webbed fingers and ridiculously short legs, I doubt that they could compete with Phelps.

Of course, my enjoyment of the event was slightly tarnished by the presence of my...bombastic...friend and colleague, Dr. Sauce. The good Doctor expressed his jaded opinion that the Olympics are (And I quote) ridiculous because it is ultimately about rewarding the "best cheater." He went on to express his desire to see a "narc-Olympic" games where the winners are the pharmaceutical companies that make humans do the most ridiculous things.

Usually, I roll my eyes and laugh when Dr. Sauce gets talking this way, after which I express my (contradictory) opinion, and we get more drunk and forget what we were talking about.

-Before continuing, I want to make it clear that I enjoy sports and admire athletes that devote themselves to their event to the exclusion of a normal life.-

However, this time I could not quite let the good doctor rant without prodding his statement. So I happened to ask him: "why ever for?"

His response was interesting and illuminating: "Well why not just come right out and let everyone do the drugs that they are pretending not to do?"

Rather than take my usual contrary stance, I found that I (partially) agreed. Of course, there was a problem with his opinion. As I explained (and I admit I may be full of the bull$%!^ herein), performance enhancing drugs are banned from the Olympics because they are supposed to be accessible from any level of competition. Let's suggest that there is club swimmer somewhere in Manitoba. Depending on her competition times, she can become eligible to compete at the regional and then the nation level. Pending her results, she could represent Canada at the upcoming Olympiad.

However, if the Olympics were (overtly) just about who has the best drug regime, then casual and amateur athletes could never hope to compete at anything more than the local/club level. Unless they were willing to absorb the risks associated with taking performance enhancing drugs, there is no way to compete with 'professionals' that have been recruited into professional programs. This is why there had been a ban on professional athletes in Olympic hockey and basketball. (IMHO) The ban was lifted because the IOC (rightly) decided that programs outside of N. America and Europe could produce teams that can compete with the best Russian, European, and N. American squads (in hockey), and the best U.S. teams (in basketball). Of course, baseball was still limited to amateur athletes (before being canned this year).

So, the IOC tries to keep the games "clean" because they are supposed to be accessible. Basically, a swimmer in Saudi Arabia should be able to compete on equal footing with a swimmer from France or Australia.

Better yet, the individual sprints are true marker of just how accessible the Olympics can be. How much skill does it take to run 100m? None. How much work does it take to run it in under 10 seconds? That depends on your training. If the Olympics were just simply a drug regime, there is no point to allowing many of the world's nations to enter competition, since the wealthiest programs would make it impossible for the poorest to compete. Without drugs, it is about training, genetic predispositions, and more training. In essence it should be fair.

Of course after mentioning the 100m sprint I have to admit that the Olympics are also supposed to be a showcase for the expansion of (what is possible regarding) human potential. Every Olympiad, the 100m time decrease evermore below the 10-sec mark (in the men's event). It is on this point that I accept that Dr. Sauce is right. If we want to showcase (and to push) the limits of human performance, why don't we give the athletes every possible advantage?

I absolutely think that it would be fantastic to "see" a human being break the 9-sec barrier in the 100m. However, I seriously doubt that is possible without performance enhancing drugs (and without surgery). In another 50 or 60 years? Maybe. But not until then. With performance enhancing drugs? Why not?

I would like to recommend a "games" from my conversation with the doctor: "athletes" compete in the typical blue-ribbon Olympic events. However, medals are not gained by performance alone. Rather, judges (a mix of physicians, physiologists and ethicist(s)) determine how detrimental to health an athlete's regime is (in the long run), and award handicaps to the athletes that adopt a supplement regime that favours performance over health. So, a sprinter that takes some performance-enhancing supplements that will eventually render him dead from a bloated and weakened heart will be awarded a lower "score" than one that adopts a regime that only improves muscle-twitch with no long-term affects.

Basically, what I would want to watch is a Games where human potential is pushed beyond its current limits. However, the public can rejoice in these Games because they will showcase technologies that may one day improve their own lives. Dr. Sauce should be applauded for his desire to see a "NarcOlympics."

However, having said that, I believe that the current Olympic philosophy, of keeping the games accessible, should be encouraged and preserved. Winning a Gold Medal, after four years of hard training, is an award that should never be tarnished.

Simply put, I think that we should create a venue for those athletes that want to push the human speed limit, or the amount that a body can dead-lift.

Of course, I may be wrong about the Olympic philosophy (I know I neglected to mention all of that nationalist crap about sportsmanship around the world), so my vision may be worth nothing.


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