For those of you who don’t know him – Charles Pierce is a sports writer. He writes for Grantland and sometimes appears on NPR. Usually I really like him – but he’s written a few articles recently for Grantland that appear to glorify drug cheats. As I am apparently the only person who cares about doping in sports – I thought I’d write a reply to his most recent article on Ben Johnson and the “9.79” documentary.In his attempt to glorify, or at least de-stigmatize, known dopers, Pierce is doing a great disservice to all athletes. The question of whether drugs in sports should be condoned is very different than whether drugs in general should be condoned in society. In the context of competition there will always be pressure to come up with a new drug that improves performance, with little to no pressure to make sure it’s safe.
There was a survey a few years ago that showed many Olympic athletes would take decades off their life in order to medal in the Olympics. Yes, there are performance enhancing drugs that can be used safely under the care of a doctor – but, do you really think that the most competitive people on the planet are going to be satisfied with the “safe” drugs when they know everybody else is taking the same thing?
Pierce says that he “saw Ben Johnson win an Olympic gold medal on the track and then lose it in the laboratory.” He misses an important step – Johnson won it in the laboratory, then won it on the track, and finally lost it again in the laboratory. Does Pierce not understand how much these drugs improve performance? In many endurance event the effect is said to be 10% - if that were true of the 100m that would be a full second. Basically it would close to impossible to be competitive and drug-free at the same time. Don’t our best athletes deserve better than to be treated like race horses?
Most world class athletes have learned to listen to whatever their coach tells them to do – it’s one of the things that makes them great. I have empathy for the incredibly difficult choice that athletes must make when someone they trust tells them that “it’s ok to take this” – “everybody else is doing it”. However, that empathy does not extend to not holding them accountable for their bad decisions – especially when they made the same decision hundreds of times over decades.
Pierce is not the only sports journalist who seems to either not care about doping (Michael Wilbon). They see that sports fans don’t seem to care – so why should they? The answer is that we need to save athletes from themselves. As a society, we need to make sure that athletes don’t have to take unnecessary risks in order to compete. Our journalists should make an effort to remind the public why they should care. With all the recent hubbub about doping (Armstrong etc) – I have yet to see a lengthy article talking to athletes who have had major consequences from doping – or from family members of those who have died from doping – not to mention athletes who were cheated out of glory because they competed clean.
I hope that this open condoning of doping athletes is a passing fad – I just hope that an athlete doesn’t have to die to remind us why drugs have no place in competition.