Suited and Booted
How anti-doping hysteria is ruining sports
Typically, swimwear creates scandal in inverse proportion to the amount of fabric it's crafted from, but not so the Speedo LZR Racer. Like most of the high-tech bodysuits that have become popular among the world's fastest swimmers since the 2000 Olympics, the LZR is as modest as Mormon underwear—it leaves only one's ankles, arms, and shoulders exposed. And yet for the last several months, it's been attracting more attention than a fake Kazakh journalist in a neon green banana hammock.
With its ultrasonically bonded paneling, corset-like "core stabilizer," and fabric that sheds water like the Tour de France sheds dopers, the LZR Racer reduces drag significantly better than any other suit currently available. It's so form-fitting it takes Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin 20 minutes to put hers on. Five-time Olympian Dara Torres requires two helpers to wedge herself into hers. Still, if the LZR isn't breaking any world records in locker rooms, the pool's a different story. Since the LZR's introduction four months ago, 44 world records have fallen to those who've managed to squeeze into one.
But what sort of message is such promiscuous record-breaking sending to our children? With the Olympics just around the corner, and the Tour already under way, this is high season for leather-lunged oratory about level playing fields, the spirit of sport, and the character-building that comes from joyless, obsessive, meticulously plotted training regimens that nonetheless do nothing to compromise the size of one's genitals.
A common theme of such rhetoric is that sport loses its metaphorical value and instructive authority as soon as things like magic Speedos—and even worse, magic anabolic agents—enter the picture. We value athletic competition in part, this reasoning goes, because it teaches us important life lessons about hard work, sacrifice, discipline, the passionate commitment to exceed one's limits. But when an athlete employs unsanctioned performance-enhancement techniques, somehow that all goes out the window and sport becomes an empty, meaningless, completely corrupt sham.
Or is it just that we're setting new world records for performance-enhancement hysteria? According to swimming's governing organization, FINA, the LZR Racer is legal because there's no evidence that it improves a swimmer's buoyancy—and yet its detractors characterize the suit as "drugs on a hanger." At this point, apparently, we're so wary of doping and its pernicious impact on sport that doping can occur even when no dope is actually involved!
And when dope is involved, it overshadows everything else. Versus, the cable channel that broadcasts the Tour de France in the U.S., has chosen to characterize this year's edition with the theme "Take Back the Tour." A promotional spot that airs repeatedly during the channel's commercial breaks features footage of Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, and other pharmacologically suspect cyclists playing in reverse as singer Paul Weller warbles soulfully about clearing out his head, getting himself straight, making a brand new start. It's as if Versus believes the Tour must erase its entire recent history and go backwards into the future, toward some purer past, before EPO and testosterone digestifs, before autologous blood transfusions. Ah, yes, the good old days, when only cocaine, strychnine, and peppermint fueled the peleton, and the heroic alpine exploits of Gallic ectomorphs could still legitimately inspire us to push past our own boundaries and pain thresholds.
During the chatty intro segments that start each Tour broadcast, the Versus announcers have been taking special care to mention the new procedures and policies designed to keep riders clean. During the broadcast's up-close-and-personal profiles, past and present luminaries issue vague, halting platitudes about the positive new attitudes, positive new beginnings, the potential for change. Eventually, as one of the world's greatest sporting events is reduced to tedious a AA meeting, one can't but wonder: In all those prior Tours that we're supposed to wipe clean from our memories, were the drugs the only thing that mattered? What about rain, wind, flat tires, crashes, feuding teammates, efficient mechanics, drunken fans creating havoc in the roadways, routes that favored one type of rider over another, injuries, illnesses, perfectly executed race strategies?
If banned substances or other unsanctioned performance-enhancement techniques can single-handedly render a sport meaningless, that sport must not have much meaning to begin with. If a tremendous appetite for steroids is all that's required to achieve athletic excellence, Hulk Hogan wouldn't just be a D-list reality TV star—he'd be wearing the Tour's yellow jersey, closing in on Barry Bonds' home run record, and, provided he could shoehorn himself into Natalie Coughlin's LZR Racer, breaking the 100-meter backstroke record too.
Which is not to say that EPO, anabolics, and all the other substances athletes illicitly consume in an effort to beat those blessed with superior aerobic capacity or God's favor don't have an impact on outcomes and the culture of sport in general. Obviously they do. But they don't have nearly as much impact on sport's metaphorical value as anti-doping crusaders insist. Indeed, while Versus' cyclists-in-reverse commercial is supposed to signal a new beginning for the scandal-plagued Tour, it plays more like a highlight reel. Look at Floyd Landis as he hunches over his handlebars while barreling down a mountain at more than 50 mph and abnormally high testosterone/epitestosterone ratios are not what comes to mind. Instead, you see his courage and skill, his intense desire to win, his love of the sport. Dope-fueled or not, he looks like a hero and continues to inspire.
Meanwhile, consider the kinds of messages that arise from sport's current War on Doping. Be suspicious of achievement, wary of innovation. Embrace progress only if it's rare and gradual. According to the War on Doping mindset, the only way to ensure fair play is to monitor athletes more intrusively than we monitor paroled felons. Long hours in the pool, a knack for guessing curve ball when indeed a curve ball is coming, and all the other elements that lead to exceptional athletic performance mean nothing in the face of the awesome, incontrovertible, game-altering powers of dope. But are these really the messages we want to be teaching our children? And if the human spirit really is so impotent and inconsequential compared to a few hundred IUs of EPO or a magic Speedo, why are we even bothering to suit up at all?
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.