Doping, Blade Running, and Wheelchair Basketball

Andrew Sullivan criticizes Jeremy Rozansky’s condemnation of steroid use by claiming that steroid use is perhaps less morally arbitrary than genetic inheritance of athletic ability. I agree with Sullivan that there is no question that part of any person’s athletic ability is not due to choices she actually made, and is indeed morally arbitrary. But, to be fair to Rozansky, Rozansky’s objection to steroids was not solely about fairness. The usual objection to anabolic steroids use is a matter of fairness – steroids give those who take them an unfair advantage. Rozansky’s objection is different. It has to do with his concept of sport:

A better way to investigate the moral meaning of performance-enhancing drugs is to ask some fundamental questions: What are athletes doing when they play sports, and what are we watching when we watch? The answer seems to be a certain kind of human excellence. If we just wanted to know who won or lost, we could check the paper the next morning — it is not simply that we are watching competition. Nor is it correct to say, as one recent paper on the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs claims, that “modern athletic sport is entirely focused on finding new ways to break the old records.” If our “entire” goal were to break pitching records in baseball, we could build pitching machines to pitch perfect games. It is worth asking why we would never do this, why we would never substitute our sportsmen with machines, even though machines could easily achieve superior performance. We admire winning and we admire records, but neither in isolation, only as evidence of superior human performance. We don’t admire the fastest cheetah more than the fastest man, even though the cheetah is much faster. It isn’t meaningful to compare Michael Phelps’s performance in the pool to that of a speedboat. Sport is an exclusively human kind of performance, carried out through a combination of natural gifts — unearned, undeserved, and unevenly distributed in the population — and willed activities. An excellent sportsman or athlete must be disciplined, driven, and daring. It also helps to have learned the best methods for how to train and practice. Our games are often intellectual pursuits as well: calling upon quarterbacks to read defenses, cyclists to budget energy, and batters to master the situation on the field. We admire the willed actions, but not only the willed actions. We still marvel at superior performance no matter how much of the performance relies on natural gifts…

One cannot be personally, fully excellent if the excellence stems, at least in part, from a chemical intervention. Rather than cultivate his own individual gifts, he has chosen to have different gifts. Rather than “stay within himself,” he has chosen a different self. So when Dan Naulty exclaims “Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that,” he is intuiting how athletic achievement, once the prize of a full self who toils away at his own betterment in this activity, is corroded by the innovations of laboratories.

Modern innovations will continue to give us small and large opportunities to enhance our native gifts and thus circumvent laborious and praiseworthy craftsmanship at the heart of athletic superiority.

So sports properly done is a matter of being a functional human without the use of technology. Technological enhancement robs sport of its point. So, then, what are we to say to wheelchair basketball players? Sorry, you’re wasting your time? We do not admire you because your functioning in sport is enhanced with technology? Should the person who requires contact lenses, then, not wear them? Is he not personally, fully excellent at sports? Or maybe skiers, too. Hard to ski without technology, and all. And should we object to technological developments in sneakers, swimsuits, etc?

One might say (and some have) that this way of thinking, this insistence on the way of functioning as opposed to the level of functioning, is closely tied to prejudice against people with disabilities. We focus on the atypicality of the way in which a human function is performed (e.g., mobility in a wheelchair rather than walking) rather than the level of functionality which is achieved.

Now, to return to the issue of fairness. Oscar Pistorius presents us with a very interesting case. It seems very possible that his disability has given him an advantage. The prosthetic legs he wears might make him run faster than he otherwise would have. There was controversy about his participation in the 2012 Olympic Games. The thought was that his disability was an unfair advantage. First, allow me to say that, contra Rozansky, I do find Pistorius admirable, technological enhancements and all. And second, I see both sides of this. On one hand, he may have something that none of the other athletes have, i.e., amazing prosthetics. And that’s not a level playing field. On the other hand, is it any more to the the other runner’s credit that they were born with their athletic ability than it was to Oscar Pistorius’s credit that he was born without bones in his lower legs? Both circumstances are morally arbitrary. So why should Oscar Pistorius be ruled out? Because the way he has of doing something requires technology? That is how he achieves mobility. He couldn’t run at all otherwise. I wear glasses to achieve decent vision. It’s a minority of people who are double amputees, and then they would be favorites in running. But, you know. It’s a minority of people who are born to be 6’6″+ and who are thus favorites in basketball.

I really could respect Rozansky’s view had he stuck to the issue of fairness. And, I mean, Lance Armstrong lied and broke the rules. That’s bad enough. But his lack of admiration for the human body aided by technology speaks to something deeper. It suggests, however unintentionally, a view of  people with disabilities that has nothing to do with their level of functionality and everything to do with whether the way they achieve that functionality is typical.

[UPDATE]: In the comments, Michael Drew rightly points out that Rozansky has a point about where sports end and mechanics begin. For example, Rozansky’s comparison of Phelps to a speedboat. I’d say sports does have something to do necessarily with bodily effort. That that’s where the source of achievement lies. I disagree with Rozansky that it must be unaided by technology, but it must spring from bodily effort. For example, a wheelchair race between manually-powered wheelchairs seems legit, a race between electrically-powered wheelchairs seems pointless.

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67 thoughts on “Doping, Blade Running, and Wheelchair Basketball

  1. I man, just in evolutionary terms, where the body ends and artificial tools begins is arbitrary, and somewhat up for debate (aren’t fingernails tools, in so far as they are developed to serve a certain function?)

    Sullivan of course can’t wander that far though because, per is faith, what appears to be arbitrary must at some point up the chain become necessary, inevitable, providence, etc.

    So where as Sullivan might not find the claim that human beings’ current forms, and the variation among those forms, is somehow “natural” or “intentional,” the rest of us are left wondering how at some point something that’s arbitrary becomes non-arbitrary, whether this is the fact that I have larger feet or the fact that I have feet at all.

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  2. I am unsure where I come down on Pistorius, as it seems a complicated shade of gray. (Though regardless, what he has accomplished is nothing less than remarkable.)

    I think the issue here isn’t really one of “fairness,” not exactly – though that is the easiest single word to put my finger on. Kobe Bryant going one-on-one with Smush Parker isn’t “fair;” neither is Ali in his prime vs. some guy that was never ranked. “Fair” has nothing to do with it.

    Instead, we watch sports in part because we want to see a concise visualization of human achievement, unfolding before our eyes. Seeing Kobe Bryant score 81 was special; watching Tiger Woods tear through tournaments as a newly minted pro was special; watching Kurt Gibson beat the odds and the A’s with a bum leg and a heavy dose of grit was special. Even if you’re rooting against them, witnessing their achievements was – to choose an overused word in its proper context – inspiring.

    But in order to witness this achievement, there always has to be a baseline from which everyone agrees to start. WIthout that baseline, the achievements become meaningless. Michael Jordan wasn’t the tallest, fastest or most purely athletic person on the court ever; watching him overcome all of those deficiencies, over and over again, was breathtaking. But it was only so because when he walked out onto the hardwood, he was starting from the same place as the other 23 men suited up. If he were given springs on his shoes so that he could jump the highest, or extensions to his arms to block shots more effectively, he might well have had better statistics – but his accomplishments would have been tarnished, and we would not have cared to witness them (expect perhaps out of a quick curiosity).

    The reason that wheelchair basketball is not diminished is that all the players on the court start from that baseline. The reason that wearing cleats does not diminish a relay runner is that everyone on that track starts from that same baseline advantage.

    For those that aren’t into sports, I offer this analogy: You punish the guy that uses steroids for the exact same reason you punish the high school student that has snuck a smart phone into the SAT testing facility and is using it to up his score. It doesn’t matter that certain kids are naturally bighter than others, or that some come from better schools. or had better teachers, or are better at test taking – it only means something if everyone starts the test – at that moment when you’re asked to read silently while the tester reads aloud – starts from the exact same baseline.

    (That was long. I should have made this a post.)

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  3. I find it strange that in all these discussions it rarely seems to come up that using PEDs is against the rules. Now, I’m no prude and maybe even a bit of an anarchist when it comes to political matters, but sports have all sorts of arbitrary rules that nevertheless get enforced.

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  4. I completely agree that the problem is more to do with how drug use squares with the aim of the activity itself rather than fairness. As long as PEDs are banned, yes, there’s an unfairness that cheaters will prosper so long as not caught. But that’s an artificial unfairness created by the ban in the first place. Get rid of the ban, and the sport simply becomes partly about who can best manage the drug cocktail best suited to their body chemistry’s max-perfomance needs. One could argue that economic factors would then govern the drug advantage – but the problem with that is that economic factors already govern various competitive advantages in sport – from equipment to facilities to coaching to the simple question of whether an athlete must have a day job or not.

    No, the question is whether we simply regard the use of these chemicals as conceptually anathema to the sporting endeavor. I don’t have an opinion on that. I don’t think there’s a good reason that we couldn’t just say that it isn’t and that’s the new definition of sport, but I don’t think there’s an unavoidable argument that that would change sport to something else entirely that’s not sport and that we don’t want to have take sport’s place. It’s just sort of up to us. The unbearable lightness of roids.

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    • Correction:

      I don’t think there’s a good reason that we have to say that it (legalizing PED use) isn’t conceptually anathema to sport and/or that it should just become part of the new definition of sport, but I don’t think there’s an unavoidable argument that that would change sport to something else entirely that’s not sport and that we don’t want to have take sport’s place, either. We just have to decide what we want sport to be.

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  5. On mechanical enhancements, I do think that R does raise an interesting theoretical question – at what point is the human simply not doing the sporting activity? But it’s not really a practical concern at all, in my view, at least not yet. I.e., in his pitching machine example, what if a brilliant mechanical designer built a pitching machine that could break all the pitching records, but he also had a dream of being – or calling himself – the greatest (by statistical records) baseball pitcher of all time. Say baseball changed its rules radically such that any mechanical enhancements at all could be used to aid in the pitching game only. So this guy gets signed up with a team, and starts just wheeling his machine out to the mound and stands next to it while it mowed down 27 straight batters every game for 25 years. Except, the thing is, he insists, and baseball agrees, that he mowed them down. The machine aided him in doing so.

    We’d want to say he didn’t, and that he never engaged in any sport – only brilliant mechanical design. That situation would be nothing like wheelchair basketball or Pistorius’ prostheses (or high-tech golf clubs for that matter), but we could imagine cases between these extremes. It seems like we may, depending on the evolution of technology and of thinking in sports governance, eventually need a way (or ways) to define participation in sport (or particular sports) such that we’ll know when a person using a particular mechanical enhancement to excel in a sport is in fact still participating in that sport as a valid human participant rather than as someone who has developed or acquired a technology that could aid a person in manipulating the elements of the sport such that the sport is being excelled at, but not necessarily by the person as we imagine the intent of the inventors of the sport would indicate (allowing for modifications to their intent).

    Now, we won’t need this for individual sports to be able to continue on as technology progresses. They’ll just do what they’ve always done and make determinations sport-by-sport, technology-by-technology, case-by-case. But if we want to make meta-judgements of those judgements to allow us to analyze the co-evolution of sport and technology,then we may need that.

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    • Yes, I agree, and I elided the issue. I haven’t thought about the issue much, but offhand I’d say it does have something to do necessarily with bodily effort. That that’s where the source of achievement lies. Not unaided by technology, but it must spring from bodily effort. For example, a wheelchair rave between manually powered wheelchairs seems legit, a race between power wheelchairs seems pointless.. Actually, I’ll update the post, I think. Thanks.

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