First, a quick assist to ATalbot, friend of the Spleen and proprietor of the Bye Bye Rob blog. Blogger's comment feature wouldn't let him post the following flyer for this weekend's anti-war rally in Hartford, but I can post in a main entry, so here it is:
ATalbot (I have to ask him if he minds whether I use his real name) also attended Ned Lamont's announcement that he will challenge Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate from Connecticut (maybe he'll give us a report in a comment to this post). He is one of a group of teens -- friends of my daughter's -- who continue to give me hope for the future, because they are so much more involved in serious thought about real issues (politics, the arts, etc.) than I remember being at that age.
Next, I found myself compelled yesterday to comment in a thread at the blog of Steven Berlin Johnson, the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You. Taking off on the recent reports about Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use, Johnson ponders whether "performance enhancing" substances are really all that different from other performance enhancements, such as laser eye surgery that enhances already good vision. After I added my comment, it dawned on me that I shouldn't have wasted my perfectly good words (OK, that's a matter of opinion, admittedly) on somebody else's blog... so I'm shamelessly plagiarizing myself by repeating my comments here:
The conversation about "performance enhancing" substances/practices reminds me strangely of the controversy over genetically modified animals/crops: They're both based on the same false dichotomy between "artificial" and "natural."
Just as all domesticated plants and animals are really genetically modified, whether through the slow and tedious "natural" methods of selective breeding and culling or the "artificial" methods of the laboratory, so too are all elite athletes "performance enhanced" compared to non-athletes. At first glance, it might seem easy to differentiate between "natural" performance-enhancing measure (i.e., special diets, exercise regimes, training, physical therapy, sports psychology) and "artificial" ones such as drugs and surgical body modification... but on closer inspection, such distinctions can seem pretty arbitrary. During the recent Winter Olympics, several cross-country skiers were temporarily suspended because of elevated hemoglobin levels. My understanding is that these levels might result from illegal doping... but they might also result from "natural" causes, including high-altitude training.
Because the raison d'etre of sports is competition, and some basic standard of fairness is essential to competitive integrity, I think there is a basis for discriminating between performance enhancing measures... but based on equal access, rather than on the imagined moral superiority of "natural" methods: An athlete shouldn't feel compelled to become a criminal in order to have a fair chance of winning, so it's reasonable to ban illegal drugs; an athlete shouldn't feel compelled to risk his/her life for sport, so it's reasonable to ban life-threatening practices. (Note that the latter does not imply that merely unhealthy practices should be banned: By the standards of "normal life," much of what elite athletes do with regard to training and diet could be called unhealthy.)
Under my model, illegal steroids should be banned, NOT because they're "performance enhancing," but because allowing their use would put athletes unwilling to engage in criminal behavior at an unfair disadvantage, and thereby damage the basic competitive equity of the sport. Substances that are legal (e.g., anything you can buy at a GNC store) should NOT be banned, regardless of their "performance enhancing" characteristics, and substances that are illegal but not performance enhancing should not be specifically banned by sporting organizations. (That is, Ricky Williams' fondness for the ganja is between him and the cops, but to my mind no business of the NFL's, unless you can convince me that smoking dope makes him a better football player.)
As for eye surgery and other "artificial" enhancements, I say as long as they're freely available to all and don't present any extreme risks, there's no reason to restrict them.
Of course, I'm the commissioner of exactly nothing! ;^)
If you're interested in the original thread this appeared in, it's here.
Unit of the Day: The newton (yes, named after that Newton) is the metric (SI) unit of force, equal to the force required to accelerate one kilogram at one meter per second per second. This one is familiar to space cadets, because rocket engine thrust is given in multiples of newtons (everywhere but the U.S., where we still use pounds).