January 30, 2008

Life After ’Roids; What Constitutes an Unfair Advantage?

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The naked Grecians that battled for Olympic glory competed not just for pride and validation in the mortal realm, but for the favor and approval of the gods. If those noble, laurel-bedecked athletes could witness (and comprehend) the state of the Olympics today their perfectly toned abs would ripple (among other things) as they scoffed in disgust at the controversies surrounding their sacred games.
While nudity (at least not in its most literal form) is not my prescribed solution for the steroid controversies tarnishing the reputations of Olympic athletes and the games themselves, perhaps a “bare” (ahem) essentials review of what the Olympics truly stands for might provide some useful perspective.
Less than a month ago Marion Jones, once America’s most praised and decorated female runner, received a six month prison sentence for lying under oath about her own steroid use and a check fraud scam. It was the maximum possible sentence under her plea deal. Beyond that, she was stripped of her medals, integrity, dignity and time with her young family, including a son she is still nursing. Jones is, without a doubt, paying a hefty personal price. But what about other Olympic hopefuls? What price do they pay as a consequence of Jones’s and other steroid users’ actions?
It seems that what’s at stake here is not just fair competition between individual athletes but the validity of the entire Olympic games. If competitors pumped full of “The Clear” a.k.a THG (not to be confused with THC) can avoid Olympic testing than the honor and respectability associated with winning an Olympic medal is null and void. Some people argue that steroids should be made a legal option for all athletes to use and the decision should be up to the individual.
While its possible to argue that steroids should be treated like technological advancements in sports equipment, using a composite hockey stick versus a wooden one causes no physical harm but steroids absolutely do. We may never know if the ancient Greeks had their own special tricks for enhancing athletic performance, but those guys competed buck-naked so they couldn’t have given themselves all that many unfair physical advantages.
The debate over what constitutes fair competition reaches much farther than the world of anabolic steroids. Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprinter, who has also played rugby and water polo. Shockingly, though, he doesn’t have legs (at least not flesh ones) below the knees. Born without a fibula in both of his lower legs, he underwent amputation when he was 11 months old and has spent the rest of his life walking and running with prosthetic legs.
The talented 20-year-old has since not only shattered many Paralympic sprinting records but is quickly approaching men’s Olympic qualifying time and desperately wants to compete on the track in Beijing this summer.
Unfortunately for the “Blade Runner” — a nickname that references his carbon prosthetics — the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) denied his Olympic bid citing research conducted at Germany’s Institute of Orthopaedic Research and Biomechanics. The findings supported the claim that Pistorius’s artificial legs give him a “leg up” (pun intended) by using 25 percent less energy than a pair of natural legs.
Now, I acknowledge that I am a mere college sports columnist (a pretty low place on the totem pole of life) and certainly do not think myself smart or knowledgeable enough to critique the extensive scientific tests performed on Pistorius’s prostheses,. Still, I still am arrogant enough to offer the following argument in his favor. First, the guy has no legs (period). Second, he doesn’t just run on fake legs but he is kicking some serious South African sprinter butt. That alone is an outrageous and, dare I say, miraculous, accomplishment regardless of what material is used to construct his artificial limbs. Whatever the scientific results say, this man is defying odds, misconceptions and pessimists by running on “feet” that he cannot feel because they are not connected by his nervous system to the rest of his body.
Are artificial limbs as unfair as steroids? How can they even be compared when Pistorius and others like him have struggled their whole lives just to learn to walk, let alone run. Steroid users like Jones merely purchased a substance that allows them to take the so-called low road to false success. Admittedly, this is not the only difficult question the IAAF contemplated in its ruling, but it is important for the entire sports community to consider the potential answers.
Artificial limbs are not made of flesh, muscle and bones and the fact that they will never be the same is a formidable argument. Still, the Olympic games stand for hard work, dedication, excellence, talent and most of all, overcoming daunting odds. Steroids and the athletes who use them denigrate everything the Olympics.
Oscar Pistorius, however, truly embodies the essence of an Olympic athlete. It is a shame that suspicions surrounding steroid-use enhance the skepticism regarding Pistorius’s eligibility. If ancient Greeks would have proudly placed a laurel wreath on his head out of respect for his athletic prowess, maybe we should, too.