Posted by lex on October 6, 2007
It’s getting hard to root for our heroes any more. At least for the sporting type. Barry Bonds breaks a treasured record in baseball and, seeing his freakishly overstuffed muscles, scarcely anyone seems to care. Every time the Tour de France comes up the unspoken question of “who’s doping?” remains on everyone’s lips until the first contestant dons the Yellow Jersey – then we say, “Oh. He is.” Ben Johnson’s had to give his Gold Medal back and now Marion Jones tearfully stands admitted of cheating. You could almost feel sorry for her, she’s ruined her life. The fastest woman in the world is now just another footnote.
Everyone is doing it the cynics say. It’s a victimless crime. Why should any of us care?
Something I heard from my own son yesterday convinces me that we should. SNO had been a sprinter in high school, but although he was gifted and worked hard, he never won a race. I always cheered him on just for trying, but I could see that there was something smoldering in his eyes. In those days I thought it some kind of embarrassment or humiliation. I learned differently yesterday. It was a kind of rage.
We met for lunch, and the Jones story came up on the television in the restaurant. I remembered that he had taken a weight lifting class during his junior year of high school, a class his parents had hoped to learn more about during orientation day. The instructor talked about the standards for the class and how the kids would be graded. Towards the end he brought up the issue of steroids.
I was prepared for the routine denunciation and surprised a bit to see him choose his words carefully. To ask those who were lingeringly curious of the benefits and disadvantages of performance enhancing drugs to stay after and speak with him privately. I remember thinking that I must not have heard him correctly, that there must have been some misunderstanding. What advantages could possibly outweigh the negatives of steroid use for high school age athletes?
I shook it off.
But at lunch yesterday, SNO said to me that the same teacher had joined him in the weight room one day in his senior year while he was working out with two soccer players that also ran track and field. Players that, even though they were not specialists, were blazingly fast. Who routinely got the favored starting spots for the meets.
The coach’s eyes swept the room as he entered, and he walked over to the soccer players to ask if they were still taking their “protein shakes.” A question which mystified them until my son, who was watching this exchange out of the corner of his eyes through the mirrors, saw the coach jerk his head over in his direction. “Protein shakes,” the coach slowly reiterated. “You know.”
“Oh, yeah. Those. Yeah coach. We’re still taking those.”
So that’s when my man knew, and it came to him as a blinding realization: The other guys were on the juice. That it didn’t matter how hard he tried if he was going to play it fair. That he couldn’t win against athletes who were cheating.
It’s a terrible thing to be a competitor and know that you cannot win without cheating. And my man, bless him, would never think of it. He’d rather quit than cheat, and although he stayed on the team and strove every meet to do a little better than he had before, in his heart a part of him probably had quit that day. It stopped being so important.
We love our athletes because at their best, they show us a glimpse of human perfection. What we ourselves might have been, if only we worked hard enough, and had gifts and the motivation. They give us a kind of hope – the ancient Greeks would have wondered if these were gods.
No, not all of us were destined to be Olympians. But each of us has the innate capacity to maximize our natural gifts and our heroes give as an example of the form. Something to look up to, a vision to chase.
Except when they cheat. Some of us lose their faith in human greatness, others give in to the siren song and lose their innocence.
But all of us lose.