Monday, September 01, 2008


"I don't do drugs. I am drugs." Salvador Dali

Drugs in Sport are evil. Athletes who take drugs and then purport to participate in sports are blasphemers and they should suffer the death of Herod Agrippa, whose insides were gnawed at by unidentified intestinal worms, because at games that he held in Caesarea in honour of the 'god' Claudius, he had the effrontery to equate himself with God.
This notwithstanding, where athletes are apprehended consuming foreign bodies for the purpose of enhancement they must not ever be exposed. Such condign punishments as are to be meted out by their peers should be done so behind the parascenium, safely removed from the adoring eyes of their devotees, for prolonged exposure to such revelations will invariably result in a Göttedämerung of Wagnerian proportions.
Our athletes are superhuman. They are Gods. We do not worship them and ensure that they are provided with votive offerings in the form of sponsorship deals, photoshoots and other lucrative opportunities designed for them to amass untold riches in the treasuries associated to their temples because they get up early in the morning to train. If this were the case, then the millions of factory-workers and other labourers who rise before dawn and scurry to their place of drudgery in order to make their shifts and feed their families would be our articles of worship and would thus be rewarded accordingly. However, with the notable exception of Soviet super- coal-miner Alexei Stakhanov, who was reputedly able to mine 14 times his quota in a single shift, thus proving the superiority of the Soviet economic system, they are not.
Society, in all its forms, worships athletes because they have attuned their bodies to a level of relative aesthetic perfection that seems almost impossible to attain during the normal course of one's life and which is irrepressibly desirable. To transcend the aesthetic barrier into perfection, vast sacrifices need to be made. One must renounce the world and devote themselves entirely to the pursuit of perfection. It is then, no wonder that the Greek work askisis, is used today to denote training or practice, but also asceticism, a form of struggle, physical and spiritual, in the pursuit of a goal. In times ancient, the ascetics who populated the Thebaid desert of Egypt sought after Theosis or deification, through renunciation of material goods and often, in the case of St Anthony, mortification of the flesh. In today's secular society, we hope that through the lifelong training of our bodies, we too can possible achieve true athletosis - to be as physically beautiful and as capable of superhuman feats as the Olympians themselves.
When athletes use performance enhancing substances, the myth of theosis is thus destroyed and their devotees are left, lost in a spiritual vacuum that threatens to be filled by other more pernicious things, like literature. For the object of their aspirations has been proven to be unattainable through any normal, or even paranormal efforts. Not even the Olympians themselves can attain such perfection without resorting to ignoble means. Suddenly, what seemed plausible if only we strived a little harder, a little faster, a little higher, is after all, a fairy tale, a computer animated special effect in a Hollywood blockbuster movie, that fools no one. If we know that Hermes cannot fly and has to resort to winged sandals in order to convey himself through the air, then what makes him so very different from us? All he then becomes is some cashed up spoiled brat with access to technology and his interview in Sports Illustrated, replete with lustrous photograph of his toned torso and requisite speedo-covered bulges in all the right places and aphorisms about the nobility of friendly competition are relegated to the status of a superseded gospel.
It is a terrible thing to be left without a god to worship. The ancient Babylonians knew this and one of the first things that they would do upon conquering a foreign city was to lay their hands upon the city deity and carry it off to Babylon, just like conquering capitalist Sports Institutes sifted the ruins of the communist bloc, searching for athletes that could be carted off back home with the promise of a better pay and lifestyle. For the more gods a country has, the higher its status. A country that can produce more gods than others must surely be possessed of a superior culture, political system or genes. Australia knows this, and this is why it spends billions in locating, nurturing and training such gods, in order to present our pantheon to the rest of the world and have it contend with other purported gods. When our gods are victorious in the ensuing titanomachy, the lesser countries of the vanquished gods must acknowledge the veracity of our belief: the cult of the tall, bronzed Aussie. Similarly, the jubilation we feel when Greek athletes win gold medals can only be explained by a reassurance, that despite aeons of repression, the original Olympians' superiority can never be suppressed and though the world may want it to be otherwise, our way of life can triumph in the face of adversity.
Yet in contrast with the blind adulation of athletes by the Western world, Greek gods have always been subject to question and cynicism by their adherents, who have often pointed out their foibles and shortcoming. For one thing, Greeks gods are sore losers and cheats. Did not the great love goddess Aphrodite lend her name to the vast array of performance enhancing aphrodisiacs? Midas ended up with asinine ears after questioning the adjudication of a song competition against Apollo. Arachne was transformed into the homonymous insect by the goddess Athena, after she wove a tapestry that far surpassed anything that Athena could have managed. Excepting Hercules, who was after all, a demi-God, nothing in Greek mythology could be accomplished without the use of a performance enhancing device, whether that be the magic burnished shield and cap of invisibility of Perseus, the dragon's teeth of Jason or the magic bal of string of Theseus. Furthermore, nothing could be accomplished without the use of the most important performance enhancing device available: meson, or the intervention of the Olympian Gods. Where would Perseus have been if it were not for Athena providing him with the means to kill the Gorgon? Most likely an exhibit among the fossils in a museum of natural history. In ancient Greece, nobility of toil, ascesis and physical strength only got you so far, as the tragic story of the deluded Ajax in the Torjan epics proves. What really captured the imagination of the Greeks was how one employed their minds and made use of opportunities in order to surmount obstacles and achieve their ends.
In short, the ideal Greek god is not Michael Phelps, who stranded in the Mediterranean after being blown off course by Poseidon, could have conceivably swum home back to Ithaca, but the πολυμήχανος Odysseus, who used any performance enhancing means at his disposal, including floaties, skewers, seduction, sheep and disguise to escape the wrath of the gods and return home to his Penelope.
At any rate, there have always been drugs in sport. The ancient Maya, for example, are thought to have chewed cocoa leaves (from which cocaine is derived) to help them through their violent and sometimes fatal ball game "Pok-a-tok." And of course, the ancient Greek competitors in the Olympic Games drank mushroom and herb concoctions to give them extra oomph. Some athletes even resorted to an "organotherapy" diet to pep themselves up. The eating of the testicles of heart or an animal was said to give an athlete the requisite edge over his opponents, in the same way that a grandmother may insist that her grandchildren drink performance enhancing chamomile in winter. When I was young, my grandmother gave me a performance enhancing 'fylaxto.' While it did not protect me from coming third last in every single athletics competition I was ever forced to enter, it did protect me from failing my exams and though I would place it on my desk AND make the sign of the cross before picking up my pen, the supervisors never seemed to object, quite possibly because the were labouring under the delusion that their gods were superior to mine.
Of course the use of harmful performance enhancing drugs should be frowned upon. By the 1930s amphetamines were the pill of choice, helping athletes, soldiers, and college students increase their stamina and alertness. Soon after, steroids—drugs derived from hormones such as testosterone—arrived on the scene, to enable training at increased intensity and reduce the recovery time required between training sessions. For endurance athletes a favored technique was blood doping—injecting more blood into the body to increase hemoglobin levels, which raises oxygen-carrying capacity to the muscles. In recent years, a more sophisticated form of this technique involves taking a hormone known as erythropoietin—normally used for treating anaemia—to cause more red cell growth. In 1967 British cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and died during the Tour de France. His autopsy showed high levels of methamphetamine, and a vial of the drug was found in his pocket at the time of his death. Simpson's death marked a turning point, and by the end of 1967 the International Olympic Committee and member federations began to establish doping-control programs.
We certainly don't want our athletes dropping off like flies in the middle of the track or the term of their natural life, like poor Flo-Jo. On the same token however, why can we not celebrate the genius of mankind that enables us to concoct potions and lotions that compel us to transcend the boundaries of the possible?
In order to help the Western world persist in the naive belief that athletes compete for the love of sport, especially since the Olympic Games have permitted the participation of mercenary athletes such as the multi-million dollar professional tennis stars Nedal and Federer, the said Games should be preserved in situ, complete with deluded and self-righteous prohibitions and exclamations of mock-horror upon their transgression. In between Olympiads however, there should be another set of Games instituted, to be held in Olympia and known as the "Dopia" or local games, where countries are free to exhibit the advances they have made in performance enhancing technology and we can all revel at our ingenious scientific attainments. These games could be sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and exhibit the human body in all its technologically altered forms. In this way, countries and athletes alike can be secure in the possession of two pantheons: the Heraclid gods of brawn and beauty and the Odyssean gods of premeditation and pill-popping. All in all it makes for guilt free competition and no one gets to lose their secular belief in the metaphysical impossible. In these Games, as 'philhellene' Jacques Rogge has pointed out, Greece will surely obtain the most gold medals.
Accordingly, substance-enhanced Katerina Thanou and Fani Halkia will always remain goddesses in my pantheon of malaise for on my Olympus, burnt offerings are offered to those who will offer me a Panadeine-Forte induced fantasy respite from the world of migraines and the mundane, rather than those who will have me contend with the hard, slow jog upon the inexorable track of the conventional. It is immensely sad that athletes feel so pressured to win that they must resort to cheating. It is even sadder still that countries feel so obsessed with winning that they are willing, as in the case of Australia, to spend $100 million per gold medal, on sports. Until next week, this from Bob Hope: "Drugs are very much a part of professional sports today, but when you think about it, golf is the only sport where the players aren't penalized for being on grass."


First published in NKEE on 1 September 2008