many good posts start with "definition"
Today we are inspired by "The Terminator" and PEDs in sports. I have reached my final week of posting for a while. At one point I had all of my posts done for the next five weeks or so. I enjoyed this hobby immensely and it slowed my mind down in such a healthy way. Writer's block and a loss of the process came over me and I struggled to overcome it. Thank you for reading, it was a joy.
Thank you for sharing your comments! When I started writing I graciously advised that I appreciate the “likes” but want to hear your comments. My long-term aim is to write in a longer format and I cannot get there without your help. After one of my posts titled “Sports and Politics”, a reader “P” who I have written about previously shared a constructive comment that I had not discussed a popular issue in the media related to sports. I had already thought about the topic and had a basic outline. The comment is what motivated me to create this post quite a while ago before I knew what it might be.
So what about tonight’s title? Arnolds is one of the slang terms for anabolic steroids, presumably referring to former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his early involvement in bodybuilding. I have always enjoyed Arnold throughout his long career as an immigrant from Austria. For those frequent readers of my Newsletter, you will know I reject that that life is black and white. I rather believe it is mostly gray. If you would like another view of Arnold that is much more defining than the photo above, watch this heartfelt message from Arnold to the Russian people amidst the horrors of the current invasion of Ukraine.
Sports are an important consideration in the lives of individuals, teams, leagues, corporations, and nation-states. With the decline of network TV and 500 channels of “nothing is on” sports have risen in their importance.
Time for an early tangent and a song. For those that have seen “The Boss” live, you realize his catalog is enormous, each song is better live than in the studio, and you will hear a lot of music in anywhere from 4 to 6 hours of music. Here is an oldie that many may not have heard. When I was a kid there were four TV channels, ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. With the arrival of cable, Bruce Springsteen explained where all this was heading.
Major events like the Olympics, World Series, Superbowl have become the last group events that we all seem to share. In this way, sports bring us together. Many years ago, one of my favorite sources of satire, TheOnion.com was selling t-shirts that said “my hometown team can beat your hometown team”. It captured, as only satire can, the outsized importance we place on sports in our society. When I picture someone on the street wearing such a shirt instead of an insignia of Goldy the Gopher or a Wisconsinite sporting a foam piece of cheese on their head, the point is made.
Once something becomes important to our identity and enjoyment (like sports) it becomes likely that hero-worship and expectations that the games we enjoy are fair. The usage of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) has captured the imagination of many as the “too-far” tipping point which many agree defines unfairness.
What is fair and what is unfair? It seems to me that is up to each activity to decide on a case-by-case basis. I am not an expert on PEDs. People seem to have no difficulty with Arnold Schwarzenegger or NFL linemen the size of refrigerators. The controversy in baseball has marred a whole generation of players and challenged who is a “good player” and who is not. Who might be eligible for the Hall-of-Fame in a given sport? What I imagine in these cases is that the people in the game are more likely the best arbiters of greatness in lieu of grizzled old men who can’t hit a curveball.
This is an intriguing topic with lots of different ways to assess it. I will take a bit more than my 5-7 minute goal this evening so I will try to focus. My silly title today refers to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since it is obvious from the photo at the top that all bodybuilders are using every conceivable PED, I don’t think it is that interesting so I will choose a different angle.
Tonight I am going to focus first on the Olympic games and their influence on the culture. The Games to me, continue to be a spectacle that allows large nations to present themselves as powerful through sports. This is less the case in the Winter Olympics. The recent Olympiads have seen the rise of China in the way the Olympics seemed to be a sparring match between the United States and the USSR in my youth. I LOVE the Olympics mostly to be able to see events that I do not normally see like badminton, water polo, and the like. There is a continuous tug-of-war between the powerful nations including sports that they can get a bunch of medals in. Nothing captures this more for me than the following examples:
An absurd number of strokes, distances, medleys have emerged in swimming. I love watching swimming but it appears to be a mechanism to generate a lot of medals for the United States. One of my observations is that the participants from other countries merely swim at American Universities.
Likewise, starting in Beijing, table tennis was added to the Games. I enjoy the game (my commitment and outlook are clear since I call it ping pong) but having men’s and women's singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and a team event is bordering on absurdity.
There seems, in the same light, a focus to add and remove baseball at the games. In light of only a handful of countries even playing the game, it is an unusual Olympic sport to “bring the world together”.
The point of these examples in reference to today’s topic is important. I believe that individuals, teams, leagues, and nation-states will always seek every conceivable advantage in order to improve performance. In this case, it is about protecting an overall medal count as an analog for superiority. This brings me back to PEDs. I believe that in the context of the Olympics this discussion is best illuminated.
Take the example of swimming. The activity itself requires lots of training and presents great physical demands. It is inconceivable that (1) the suits, (2) the advanced kinematics analysis of slow-mo video to evaluate their strokes, (3) the refinement and measurement of dietary needs including the peak time to eat and what to consume, (4) the advanced recovery studies to minimize lactic acid build-up are shared equally when an American or Australian enters the pool against a woman from Botswana. What is the purpose of the unequal treatment at every stage of the competition and training while simultaneously preaching that we must be very careful that no one is getting an unfair advantage from taking a supplement or drug of some kind? I realize that we are trying to prevent the “cyborg” but if true and fair competition is the goal, other priorities might be even more important.
I am not sure you can “fix” all of these inequities. I simply feel that we ignore so many other factors when we put outsized focus on the narrow PED issue. In the case of one of my most-loved sports, PEDs simultaneously saved baseball and now we hang the millstone around the necks of a handful of players as sacrificial lambs. If there was a single action I would take in regard to baseball it would be the removal of Commissioner Bud Selig who oversaw and looked the other way during the whole steroid era in baseball from the Hall of Fame.
He is, without question, the shameful figure in the whole affair. What is the truth? Selig worked at the discretion of the owners. He delivered and oversaw a wild-west program of no oversight because it put fans in the stands, encouraged new fans to watch home run derbies, and restored some relevance to the game. The owners, most of all lined their pockets with all of the increased revenue. Selig did EVERYTHING the owners wanted. Most of all he hung all the responsibility around the necks of a handful of players when he headed for the hills and the Hall-of-Fame.
My photo of Marion Jones above is another tragic character swept up in the use of PEDs. Marion was connected to the baseball story as she was implicated in the BALCO scandal that included Barry Bonds and a host of players. Marion Jones is a tragic character. She was an exceptional point guard for the national champion UNC Tar Heels. She moved into a career in track and field and won an array of medals in the 2000 Games. It is clear by the definition in her abs that her training was unusual. She was one of the most celebrated athletes of those games until her later disgrace. I believe the steroid era, in an unwarranted way, targets individuals who are easy to drag to disgrace and leaves the perpetrators of the greater programs unscathed. Marion Jones’ life unraveled and she was eventually implicated in a check fraud case and went to federal prison! These sorts of things never seem to happen to “the head of the snake” (Mr. Selig) but instead seem to fall to other fall guys (and women). I am not a conspiracy guy and do not see race and discrimination in every matter. However, it is not surprising to me that:
Patrick Arnold and Greg Anderson, conspirators of the illegal drug lab named BALCO that distributed narcotics throughout the sports world and lined their pockets with the profits eventually went to jail for 3 months.
Victor Conte, the man who ran the BALCO lab had spent time in prison previously but escaped prosecution for BALCO. He estimated his lab made 250 million dollars during its operation (1988 to 2002).
Marion Jones (an African-American female by “coincidence”), one of the thousands of customers, eventually served six months in prison, twice what the co-conspirators faced. Regardless of what you think about what Marion Jones did, her punishment seems outsized in comparison.
Bud Selig oversaw it all. Baseball revenue and popularity rose under his tenure. A whole array of ballplayers who ensured his success during the period have now been denied entry into the HOF where he resides while many have escaped the same scrutiny and have been welcomed to Cooperstown.
Barry Bonds is perhaps one of the 5-10 best baseball players (quite possibly the very best) in history just on the basis of what he did in his early years in the league. He was never a popular figure with the press. He was an easy figure to frame and load all of the consequences of the policies of Major League Baseball. We all expect to be able to drive 62 in a 60 and it is not a felony when the Chief of Police is speeding at will. Bud Selig removed the speedometers for many seasons and sold a lot of hot dogs. Almost everyone got big and happy. We chose a few to admonish and celebrate the rest.
Baseball has been played since the 1870s. The largest book in the library is the Baseball Encyclopedia. It provides statistics of every player. It is larger than the largest dictionary. In the history of the game, 133 players have managed to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 bases. Barry Bonds was well on his way to the milestone in his early years in Pittsburgh with a modest, rather svelte physique. He won two MVP awards in Pittsburgh and the following year in his first year with the Giants. If Bonds stopped playing at that point, we know he would have been tied in the history of the game with three MVP awards. One person has hit 400 home runs and stolen 400 bases. That happens to be Barry Bonds. Barry Bonds has also managed to make it into another exclusive club, with 500 home runs, and 500 stolen bases. He ended up with seven MVP awards. Second place is still holding at three.
Seems to me the old and out-of-touch sportswriters who rolled out the red carpet for Bug Selig, Jeff Bagwell, and David Ortiz (a former Minnesota Twin) who mysteriously grew Popeye-like when he got to Boston (too many lobster rolls?) might watch a little tape.
For you diehard Red Sox fans, David Ortiz managed a mighty 58 home runs in six seasons with the Twins and made it into the 500 HR club with a change of scenery and some bulking up while in Boston. Nice. Bonds only managed 2 MVPs, 176 HRs, 251 SBs, and 3 Gold Gloves in his seven years with the Pirates. Guess who is in the HOF?
Time for a tune.
We return on Thursday with “Food Dreams”. This will be about the food of my youth and its influence all the way throughout my life.