Ok after going too long in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting Part 11 yesterday, I promise, this is the last piece of background and next week I will move on to look at American sports domination, a couple of odd exceptions and then into Olympic lifting. Today I will finish with my broad stroke generalizations about American sports as a whole by moving from the sports level to the athlete level. Because just as our sports have to fulfill certain requirements, so do our athletes.
I finished yesterday by pointing out why we don’t like soccer and mentioned that one of the biggest reasons (along with the others) was that soccer can end in a tie. This goes against American mentality and especially American sports mentality. The point of sports is to establish who’s the best, who’s the worst, who’s the winner and who’s the loser. But in America it goes further than that. And today is longer than I want but I just have to move on from this topic so bear with me.
If You’re Not First, You’re Last
In addition to all of the other general factors I talked about regarding sports in the US, there’s another critical one: in the US, the only player or team that matters is the winner which is why our sports have to determine a winner (and hence a loser). This is why we won’t accept ties (and thus soccer). Ties allow that there is no singular winner (and hence no losers) and sports where this happens irritate us (sometimes it’s unavoidable, you have to give two people the gold medal or something).
Quick note: someone pointed out to me that you can tie in college football (which is somewhat outside of the professional sports issue I’m talking about and you have to let the players get back to drinking and having sex with sorority girls) as well as in the NFL (National Football League for my non-American readers). But a tie is only allowed AFTER two overtimes. That is, after both teams have completely exhausted themselves trying to determine a winner (baseball players don’t get exhausted because standing in a field picking your nose is not tiring so the game will go on forever until someone wins). I still think it’s Un-American and any team that can’t pull ahead in that time frame should be taken out back and shot as a warning to the others: Win or DIE!
But mostly we won’t put up with it and all of our exclusively American sports do not allow ties except for the exception above (the ones we watch that do are played by the rest of the world and it’s the IOC setting the rules instead of us). In American sports, someone has to come in first. Second place is the first loser and third place isn’t even worth considering. More importantly, only the guy who won matters.
This isn’t true in other countries. In Europe, after a Tour De France stage, you might hear someone say “He gave it a valiant/heroic effort.” about the 12th place finisher and others will nod their heads knowingly. It’s a concept that the majority of Americans wouldn’t even begin to comprehend. To an American, clearly his effort wasn’t valiant or heroic enough or he would have won the damn race. Nuance escapes us as I pointed out yesterday. Here’s a good example of this.
My coach told me this great story about seeing the first Rocky in the theaters, and how people came out disappointed that Rocky ‘lost’ and this is telling. The average American can’t understand that going the distance against the champ was a win for a schlub unknown from the ghetto. It’s just too subtle. It’s also why Rocky had to actually win in Rocky 2 because that’s the only type of sports movie an American can understand (and if you want jingoism on a plate watch Rocky 4 where Rocky punched Communism so hard it collapsed). If the American doesn’t win (usually to a Journey, Foreigner or Kenny Loggins song), he lost no matter what else happened.
All of our sports movies are like this, a plucky underdog who comes from behind (after an awesome training montage) to win against all odds. It’s the inherent psychology of a country that started when a bunch of oppressed Puritans (see below) came from behind, against all odds to overthrow Mother England for independence. It’s the same reason Japanese movies are about the city getting destroyed; after you have two nukes dropped on you you tend to think in terms of ‘My entire world could disappear tomorrow’ and you get Godzilla movies. I’m deadly serious about this by the way.
And the reasons that our athletes have to win is this.
I Need a Hero
Just as the first Kenyan runner fit the Kenyan cultural mold and Sir Chris Hoy fit the UK cultural mold, US sports heroes have to fit the US cultural mold. Especially if you’re hoping to generate a tradition in that sport and give incoming athletes someone to look up to or wish to follow. There’s more that we expect from sports heroes as well but I’ll use that to finish up today.
In the US, fitting the culturally appropriate model generally means being bigger than life, loud, arrogant as hell and it helps if you’re a little bit of an asshole. Americans love assholes. But its the star, the guy who did that one amazing thing to win; that’s who we pay attention to. Pretty much nobody pays much attention to the quiet guy doing the heavy lifting on the sidelines; he’s consistent and critical but he doesn’t stand out. We like the stars.
The only exception to this is when a quiet guy does something just shockingly impressive (usually in some underdog come from behind victory as I noted above); that will get people to stand up and notice. Case in point, do you think anybody would know or care who Doug Flutie was if not for that one Hail Mary pass?
I assure you that they would not and he’d be relegated to the dustbin of consistent guys who never stood out if not for that one pass. Alternately, he might have been remembered even if he hadn’t won but it would be as “That dumbass Mormon who couldn’t connect with his wide receiver when it really mattered.”
In the US, heroes have to win for it to count or matter on top of being larger than life, outspoken, arrogant assholes. This impacts not only on the athletes we hold up as our heroes but even the ones we know about or pay attention to. Which also gives further insight into how Americans think about sports (this is all important background for what’s to come, promise).
Bo Knows Sports
If you get bored sometime, go pick a random assortment of ‘average’ Americans who are sports fans (or not) and quiz them about sports and the athletes that play them. Start with the easy stuff, the popular American sports. Just as a warm-up. Unless you pick some really strange grouping of people (i.e. don’t go to the Bolivian coffee house), you can be assured that the can all name top baseball players. Barry Bonds, Samma Sosa, A-Rod, guys like that.
Same for football (my ignorance is laid bare here as I can’t name a single modern football player so I’ll go with Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Green to date myself further). In basketball, they will know of Michael Jordan, Shaq, Scotti Pippin, Spud Webb, etc. I detest most team sports and I know who these people are. Old timers know of Dr. J and Larry Bird. So far this is all pretty trivial. Let’s make it harder.
In golf, rich white guys know Jack Nicklaus, some non-golfers (like myself) even know the name. But everybody knows Tiger Woods although it’s as likely for his golf ability as the fact that he’s a golfer, part black and banged a bunch of skanks (the same reason Bill Clinton will be remembered forever). Banging skanks gets our attention although not always for the ‘right’ reason.
Ask about boxing. Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman (as much for his grill as his comeback at age 40) and many others will come up even among non-boxing fans. Ali is a legend now, 30 years after his career was over. Because he was the original shit-talker, a boastful, arrogant man who backed up everything he said with his fists.
Tyson was almost as amazing, he didn’t just beat his opponents; he absolutely destroyed them. People almost got bored with him, he was too good, destroying his opponents in seconds (in boxing, we like to see the suffering last). He talked crap and backed it up in the ring (and then developed an odd taste for human ears). American sports fans get mental and real erections over that kind of stuff.
In some areas of the country, especially the south, Dale Earnheardt might as well be a religious figure. Don’t know the name? He drives a race car. Now, I haven’t made up my mind if auto racing is a sport (for the same reason I’m not sure if horseback riding is a sport; the horse is doing all the work) but the man might as well be a god to Americans in the south. He’s a good old country boy who drives fast and turns left. And you could start a religion based around him if it hasn’t already been done.
Again, this is no shock, so far I’m focusing on purely American sports. So let’s move outside of those to see if the pattern still holds. First let’s start with track and field and swimming, two less than popular sports that America kicks ass in and sports fans will watch and ‘get’. Rabid sports fans will still know some stars and even non-sports fans will. Because they fit the right cultural mold. Examples follow:
Even folks who don’t care about swimming know about Michael Phelps after the last Olympics. He was loud, brash, arrogant and he kicked incredible ass (he also got caught doing something naughty). His power was also 9000 or more (a joke lost on the non-nerds).
Some may remember Mark Spitz, who won something insane like 7 gold medals in the 70’s at the Olympics. Folks old enough remember him although it’s hard to tell if it was for his swimming or his awesome 70”s porn star mustache, shown below.
Now ask them to name a diver. Unless they are a very specific kinds of sports fan, you’ll get a blank stare. It’s not a sport we get and divers tend to be quiet, focused types of athletes because their sport is about finesse. They don’t stand out nor capture our attention. Admittedly, some might remember Greg Louganis, who hit his head in 1988 and bled into the diving well. But it’s only because it came out later that he was HIV positive and everyone kind of lost their shit over it because HIV was new and very scary.
Briefly, America had a love affair with a distance runner, back in the 1970’s. His name was Steve Prefontaine who I have written about previously and his name will come up again. Pre was brash, outspoken (he famously called his European competition chickenshits for not running from the front like he choose to do); more importantly he kicked ass.
Pre fit the cultural mold in a sport that we also happen to get (everybody in the world has run and can grasp the concept of a running race). And people loved him. His legend was sealed by dying in a car crash young (just like James Dean). For some reason Americans admire this; dying before you pass your prime and become a caricature of yourself. Like The Who or Aerosmith.
Most could probably name at least one or two 100m sprinters. Folks of a certain age can name Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis. They might know Michael Johnson or Asafa Powell; most would know Usain Bolt as much for his sprinting as for his awesome dancing.
Sprinters are typically loud, arrogant, boastful as hell. It comes from being the ‘fastest man in the world’ and the personality type needed to be a sprinter. Americans like that and we often field some of the best for reasons I’ll discuss next week. Double win.
Now ask those same people to name a shotputter. Or discus thrower. Or pole vaulter. Sergei Bubka sounds like something you’d eat at a Russian restaurant, or a Yiddish insult. If they are old enough, they might know of Dan and Dan from the decathlon but only because of those damn shoe commercials.
Track and field is big in this country but as I said yesterday, we only really follow or like the running events, mainly the sprints and hurdles (the distances take too long and we lose focus) which are easy to understand and fun to watch. Sometimes guys pull hamstrings and we know who won and who lost. In contrast, watching guys take turns jumping over a stick, into a sandbox or throwing a heavy frisbee overhanded is not fun (and we can’t follow what’s going on) so it’s not watched.
Now move to cycling. If the person you are talking to is a cyclist, they will know Greg Lemond, Miguel Indurain, Eddy Merckx and the other big names. If they aren’t, they assuredly won’t. But you know as well as I do that EVERYBODY knows who Lance Armstrong. Cyclist, non-cyclist, they all know him. He’s so important to this series that he gets an entire day’s article so I won’t say more about him here.
How about soccer, a sport that most in this country give the first damn about for reasons I gave yesterday? Ask them to name a single soccer star. They might know the name of the US Chick who ripped her top off, but not so much for her soccer ability. More likely it’s because she was almost her own Girls Gone Wild video. Many will know David Beckham but less for his soccer skills and more as “That Eurodouche who’s banging Posh spice.”
Move to wrestling, ask them to name a top wrestler. You won’t hear Dan Gable (I don’t know any modern Olympic wrestlers by name) but you might hear Hulk Hogan, the Rock or someone else from WWF. I only know Dan Gable’s name because his blog came up on Facebook; and I can name WWF stars. See, I’m as bad as everybody else.
Now let’s get serious: ask them about weighlifting, or to name a single weightlifter. They’ll ask you if you mean bodybuilding or maybe powerlifting. Tell them no, weightlifting, the one that’s in the Olympics. Blank stare. Say it slowly and loudly: O-LYM-PIC WEIGHT-LIFTING. Like you’re talking to a 3 year old or someone from Foreignland ™. Blank stare. Ask them to name a single lifter again. They still don’t even know what sport you’re talking about.
Try a different approach: tell them that you Olympic lift (this is the only reason you’d ask the question in the first place). They will ask you how much you bench press and get enormously confused when you tell them that you don’t. Try to explain to them that your competition lifts are the snatch and the clean and jerk. They’ll giggle like a 12 year old and ask you how much you bench press again as you walk away in frustration. I’d say more but this will give away something I want to talk about later.
Now walk back to the same person and ask them if they know who Arnold is. Pronounce it ‘Ahnold’ and they all know exactly who you mean. You don’t even need to give them the last name; they know who he is. His name will come up again too but it’s for the same reasons: he was a larger than life action figure, a force of nature, brash, arrogant outspoken and he kicked ass.
They might even know who someone like Kaz is, or one of the many Magnusses who win World’s Strongest Man. Because they fit the mold and ESPN still shows those competitions (and the older reruns) to this day because people watch them (they also watch lumberjack and fireman games). WSM is big, loud, men doing big, loud, things in a big, loud, way. And shit gets wrecked sometimes. It’s the same reason Americans will watch lumberjack and fireman games. And there are chainsaws. Those athletes fit the cultural mold for Americans.
On and on and I think you get my point. When it comes to sports we need them to fit a certain mold which is big, dumb, loud and/or violent. And the same goes for our sport stars and our sports heroes. We don’t care about second place and we don’t care about the guy who put in his time for the most part.
Yes, there are exceptions, usually athletes who ‘just showed up to play the game’ for 20 some odd years without missing one, Cal Ripken I’m looking at you; another odd baseball exception although most today wouldn’t know who he was. Our heroes have to be bigger than life, boastful as hell, trash talkers. Most importantly, they have to win.
And so long as an athlete meets all of the above criteria, they can be a hero and they will be idolized. Unless they get caught doing one thing: one thing that almost all athletes these days are forced to do. To understand this, I actually have to back up a bit.
The Puritan Work Ethic and Its Implications
On Tuesday I made mention of the fact that America was first settled by folks who came here to escape what they felt was religious persecution back home but I didn’t give any details. And had I planned this series better, I would have put this discussion there. Ah well. It’s been that kind of project.
Because specifically, and very relevantly to what I want to talk about today, the folks who came here were Puritans. One of the endless sects of Christianity that has its own particular set of beliefs about things. And one thing that they brought with them was something called a Puritan (or Protestant) work ethic.
Showing that I’m as much of a theologian as anything else, roughly this means that they felt that hard work for the sake of hard work was its own reward and that the harder you worked the more devout you were. And this idea has permeated nearly every aspect of American society since day 1.
One example is our workplace where people from more ‘civilized’ countries are often just aghast. They tend to be both amazed and dumbfounded at the expectations of workers in this country. Two weeks vacation per year and more or less an expectation of putting in far more hours than one is getting paid for as being par for the course. We work at insane levels while simultaneously being lazier than just about anybody on the planet. Somehow, we manage to work the most and produce the least. I have no idea how this is the case.
And of course this permeates the world of sport where hard work is thought to allow anyone to achieve any goal. Athletes think that anything is possible by just working hard enough, you can achieve any goal and overcome any limitation on guts and heart (read the Talent vs. Work series for more on this).
This was the basis of not only the Rocky movies (what Rocky lacked in talent he made up in heart) but shows up in many other places. Steve Prefontaine who I mentioned above and who will enter this again, captured the American mind as much for his running ability as his assertion that he did it all on guts and heart (his 85 VO2 max helped a little bit). Part of Lance Armstrong’s legend is related to this too but he gets his own entire day’s post so I won’t spill it here.
Hulk Hogan famously told kids that they could be anything they wanted to be so long as they got their exercise, said their prayers and took their Hulk Hogan vitamins. He must have forgotten to mention all of the steroids he’d been taking for years. On and on it goes. Work hard enough and you can reach the top and everybody can be the best. Even if you can’t.
Athletes (and fans) believe that hard work can even overcome drugs. That was the not so subtle message of Rocky IV. Rocky was outclassed by a steroid created Russian monstrosity; and Rocky won on heart and hard work (on top of single handedly punching Communism to death).
Look at the comments in my piece on What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential. People believe that you can overcome anything, achieve anything with enough hard work. And it all comes out of our religious history and the stuff our parents told us when we were growing up in America.
For decades little kids were taught that they could be anything they wanted, even president, if they just worked hard enough. And dog bless people like GWB, Jr and Sarah Palin for helping out here; they proved that being dumb as a sack of hammers won’t prevent someone from not only entering politics but becoming president. Just like mom said. What she left out is that you need to be rich, white and have the right friends (or preferably a father who was president before you). But I’m getting off track.
The Hypocrisy of America
The USA has a very hypocritical attitude towards many things. A classic one is our attitudes towards violence versus say, sex. Because while it’s ok to show unmitigated violence and destruction on TV, nudity of any sort is NOT allowed (you can show boobs overseas and some countries have naked news which is something the US by all rights should have invented because it’s AWESOME). You can show two men beating the crap out of one another and nobody will blink; show two men kissing and the religious right will picket your network and shut you down.
The best recent example I can think of: A few years back, during the Superbowl there was nationwide horror that Janet Jackson’s bustier was ‘accidentally’ torn by little Justin Timberlake and a nipple was seen on live television. I mean the country lost it’s mind over this: a single nipple shown for about three tenths of a second. And it did so during the half-time event of a sport where 22 steroid and amphetamine fueled monsters are literally trying to rip one another’s heads off. In America, violence is ok but sex is not.
Here’s another political example so that people will call ME Un-American. One of our presidents was famously caught doing something that all men in power have done; getting a little strange on the side. He was prosecuted legally to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars. And for what? For wanting to get his dick sucked.
In contrast, another of our presidents told a boldfaced lie to the American public (or did the WMD’s finally get found and I missed the memo) and about half the country rationalized it as ‘Doing what’s best for the country’. Because it’s ok to kill brown people (especially if they have oil we need or start shit with us); violence is good and God approved. But sex is evil; worse yet, sex outside of your God approved marriage must be punished in this country.
Lying, Cheating, Gambling and Taking Drugs
And perhaps nowhere is this type of hypocrisy seen as towards a certain set of behaviors including cheating, gambling, lying and taking drugs. Because America just can’t seem to make up its mind how it feels about it. More accurately, it applies a wonderful double standard to the topic. Especially when it comes to sports and our athletes versus everybody else in the country.
So in this country, you have people complaining constantly about the lack of a lottery in their state. Or casinos. Americans (like everyone else) love to gamble as the casinos in Vegas will happily attest to. Underground betting rings exist, bookies, betting pools at the office, online, offline, you name it and people gamble. All the time even when they aren’t supposed to. People are still furious that online poker sites got closed down because they want the right to gamble and throw their money away. That right is guaranteed by the constitution. I’m not sure which page but it’s in there.
Trying to cheat or take advantage of your ‘opponent’ in business is taken as par for the course. If you can screw someone out of money, you are a shrewd businessman, even if you have to lie and cheat to do it. It’s not only expected but flat out respected (so long as you don’t take it too far, which is why Microsoft got hit with a bunch of lawsuits for ‘unfair business practices; they were winning the capitalism game a bit too well).
I gave you a great example of how we treat lying in this country; over half of the US was able to justify a completely outright lie by our President in Chief because he did it ‘for the safety and security of the country’. Lying is ok under certain conditions and Americans won’t have a problem with it.
And then there’s drugs. Americans love drugs. Well, we love some drugs. The ones that the government says are legal. The ones the government says are illegal; well if you do those you’re a sinner. As I heard it put once, America does not have a war on drugs, we have a war on some drugs.
Case in point, a mother can smoke around her toddler and nothing can be done. Sure, some will cluck cluck at her but legally she’s fine. Texas has freaking drive-through liquor stores. But don’t drink and drive, kids. You can drink yourself into a stupor every night and unless you do something really bad (like run over some kids), nothing will happen. You have a god given legal right to drink yourself stupid in this country every day of the week. Also in the constitution, still not sure which page.
But god forbid you get caught getting stoned in the privacy of your own home smoking a weed that folks have been using for 2000+ years. A weed that has been shown to have huge clinical benefits for things like glaucoma and the wasting diseases that blunt appetite (and for which folks are having all kinds of legal hassles trying to use it medically). Get caught doing the devil weed and you can have everything you own taken away from you and be thrown in jail like the felon that you are. For sitting at home watching Spongebob Squarepants and contributing to the economy by ordering take out food.
The Hypocrisy of American Sports
There is a third part of this that I want to talk about, it’s why I talked about heroes up above. In America, sports heroes are gods among men. We don’t idolize scientists because we don’t care about education or science, we don’t really idolize politicians (we just accept them, so long as we are in their political party; if they aren’t we claim that their birth certificate is fake). We do idolize celebrities a bit (and athletes certainly have no shortage of celebrity). But non-sports celebrities are held to a different standard that our sports heroes, who we put up on a pedestal.
And when you put all of this together, the Puritanical idea that you can achieve anything with hard work with our screwed up ideas about drugs, lying and gambling (they are only ok under certain circumstances) and then throw in our idolization of athletes, a curious thing happens.
Because an athlete, any athlete, who is seen as a god among men can become an instant pariah for breaking any of the ‘rules’ that we allow under other conditions. If he lies, cheats, steals, has sex with a woman who is not his wife he will be considered morally suspect and be guilty of having committed a venal sin.
Because drugs are a sin (unless I’m taking them and the government says they are legal), and cheating is a sin (unless it’s a business deal) and lying is a sin (unless it’s the President doing it to kill dark people) and gambling is a sin (unless it’s WSOP) and having sex outside of your marriage is a sin (pretty much across the board).
Violence, mind you is ok. A male athlete who is violent is just a ‘boy being a boy’. But if he does any of the above, he’s a sinner and must be punished. Because we like violence and we don’t like the other stuff (except when we do like it).
And even with the above a double standard is applied to celebrities/everyone else and athletes. A lot of Americans can’t take a rock star seriously if he’s NOT doing drugs and banging chicks left and right. It’s expected from rock stars because that’s ‘rock and roll baby’. Some people in this country will stop caring about a rock star if he comes out and says he likes to party clean now. No more drugs and 8-groupie reverse gang bangs for him, it’s all about family. What is he, Foreign?
Tiger Woods will be remembered through history for the same reason Bill Clinton will be remembered: not for his golf ability, but for the fact that he banged a bunch of skanks (and white skanks at that, the US has a real racism problem that I’m not even touching) that weren’t his wife. He did what every man wishes they could do: get paid millions to put a ball in a hole AND have lots of sex (also putting balls in a hole, har har). But the American public can’t accept that from its athletes: Tiger is a sinner and must be punished.
People still get twisted because the White Sox got caught fixing a game back in the early part of the 20th century, there is still the wailing and gnashing of teeth for something that happened over 80 years ago. People have been cheating in baseball since the time it began; loaded bats, putting stuff on the ball to make it slide off the bat and all other kinds of things. But the White Sox (referred to as the Black Sox) got caught. And America won’t forget it ever.
Because sports and the athletes that play them are held to a higher and entirely different standard than everything else in this country.
But that’s not the worst of it.
Sport’s Dirty Little Secret: Doping
The above is merely child’s play when you consider the absolute worse thing any athlete can do in terms of ruining their career in America. I gave it away with the heading title but that one thing is to take a banned substance of any sort. First off, drugs are bad (well, the illegal ones are bad) and taking drugs is a venal sin like everything else above.
But it’s more insidious than that. Because in a culture that believes that you can achieve anything with hard work, an athlete who is caught taking drugs is assumed to have used them as a crutch. That is, he had to turn to drugs because he wasn’t willing to do the work he needed to do.
I’ve pointed out already that Americans are not, by and large, a nuanced people. And the concept that an athlete might bust their balls and still need to do drugs to reach the top (because of the realities of top level sport) is lost on them. It’s work hard or take drugs.
You can’t do both in this country and doing the latter implies that you weren’t willing to do the former. Drug takers are lazy, cheats, unwilling to do the work like that other guy (who passed the test but is using the same stuff). You see this in the press all the time when an athlete gets busted. The athlete will be accused of taking a short-cut or using a crutch. Nevermind the 15 years he put into training his balls off; the fact that he took a drug makes him a lazy good-for-nothing looking for a way out.
Crime and Punishment
And, in the same way we take everything else to stupid levels in America, we take this to equally stupid levels. Because not only is using a banned substance illegal, a sin, and indicative that the athlete was too lazy to do the work, it must be punished. And Americans, just as they went after Clinton for getting some poon, want to see athletes who sully their sports by taking drugs punished. That’s what happens when your country is founded by a bunch of religious zealots. Sins must be punished and the punishment in this case is legal proceedings.
Consider how much money the federal government has put into pursuing the BALCO case (a story told in the aforementioned Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports). A bunch of baseball players got caught doing drugs and they had to be punished dammit. Because playing a freaking kids game is just that important to the overall security and safety of the world. Bush, Jr. even said so in one of his speeches: getting steroids out of sport was critical to national safety and security or somesuch. It was a great way to distract people from everything else he was doing wrong (i.e. everything).
The same thing is happening with Lance Armstrong now, people who should have better things to do are going to waste millions of dollars prosecuting him for, well I’m not sure what exactly (I’m not quite sure if he’s being prosecuted for doing the drugs or lying about it or both, allegedly mind you). But goddammit this is a man who rode a bike in a race and he might have taken drugs and he might have lied about it. He has to be punished and the US Federal Government is willing to take this to the mat and expend as much money as it has to to find out the truth. And America wonders why the rest of the world thinks we are all idiots.
Or consider Michael Phelps, the swimmer. He won an absurd amount of medals in Beijing but then someone found a picture of him taking a hit off a bong (something no college aged male has ever done in the history of ever; certainly none of the sportscasters or newswriters who criticize him for it) and America went absolutely batshit. Pot isn’t even a performance enhancing drug (and he was in his off season) and everybody lost their mind over it. Because he got caught doing something that Puritanical Americans consider a venal sin.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster
But it gets worse. Because now let’s combine all of the above with the overall American (and make no mistake, this is true in other countries) desire to see things that are bigger, louder, better, faster, further. Nobody wants to see sports if there isn’t progress which is part of why baseball was dying, the old home run record had stood for decades. Natural bodybuiding nearly failed because nobody wanted to see guys who were smaller and fatter and there’s actually an amusing OL specific situation that relates to all of this that I’ll talk about later.
We want to see sports continue to move forward. But we don’t want to hear about what has to be done to make that happens. People in this country are often willing to just stick their heads in the sands; they don’t want to hear the truth nor recognize it. They truly want to believe that it can all be done on work ethic, vim and vigor. They will consider the handful that get caught as the exceptions, the guys who couldn’t do it on talent alone or who were just lazy. They don’t want to hear that pretty much everyone is doing it (except for the losers; they are usually clean and good on ’em) and it’s just that most aren’t getting caught. Lalalalala, I can’t hear you.
People may say the words but nobody really wants clean sports. Because cleaning up sports is a move backwards. Even when the first baseball allegations started coming out, Major League Baseball was careful to only make the appearance of dealing with the problem in a variety of amusing ways (read the book I linked to above). They knew that guys hitting balls out of the park meant big money in terms of attendance and merchandise and food sales and they didn’t want to screw with that by actually punishing people. Not until the American public just wouldn’t put up with it anymore.
There’s plenty of indication that positive drug tests in the Olympics, the Tour De France and elsewhere simply go ignored (or tampered with) because sports is big money; in the US and everywhere else. The IOC doesn’t want to see the Olympics cleaned up; they’ll bust a few people to give the illusion of cracking down but they know quite well that if records stop going up, people stop watching. And their money dries up. That can’t happen.
What is an Athlete to Do?
And that causes a problem. Because drugs have been part of top level sport for at least 40 years and possibly longer; the first anabolic steroid was synthesized back in 1940 and used by the military (for whom it is also perfectly acceptable to cheat, lie, steal, kill and all the rest). To think it hasn’t been used in sport from about day 3 after people realized it would make them bigger and stronger is absurd, people have cheated since the first race was won.
And that means that the records now and for at least the last 30 years have all been fuelled by steroids. Remember how I said that Marita Koch’s drug fuelled 400m record still held from 1985. As someone pointed out to me it was one of 12 women’s records from that era that still stand. Nobody can touch them because nobody is doping at the level that the GDR did.
But the reality is this: nobody cares about sport when it stops progressing. Tangentially, I wonder what will happen when we reach the true limits of human performance, will sports end? Or will we just invent new ones to reset the records?
But sports have to go forwards, faster, longer, further, etc. than they did before. It’s true in all sports and of all sports fans (nobody wants to see things regress) but Americans are especially sensitive to this in my opinion, because of all of the other sociological crap I’ve been babbling about this week.
The Impossible Standard
And when you combine all of that with the realities of top level sport, athletes are put in an impossible position. Not just in America but I think it’s worse here. Because the realities of top level sports are that drugs are required to reach the top or to even approach the drug fuelled world records.
Even if the athletes don’t want to take them, that’s just the reality. Because all of their opponents will be taking them. So it’s either keep up or start from a disadvantage. You can take drugs or start 5-10% (depending on the sport and the drug) behind everybody else.
All athletes want to be the best and win, otherwise they wouldn’t be athletes. Some will choose not to take drugs, thinking they can make it on talent alone and trying to hew to high moral standards. Some learn a hard lesson from this. I actually learned a new phrase in reading the David Walsh book I linked before just recently: passive doping. It’s a situation that occurs to cyclists in Europe who try to keep up with the drug fuelled brethren clean.
The clean athletes end up being the ones most damaged because they do irreparable harm to their bodies trying to keep up with the users (which they can do for short periods). They over-extend themselves working at a level the body isn’t meant to work at without drugs to keep up and literally destroy themselves. Those athletes usually realize that doping is the only way to stay even with everyone else, much less get out in front. Their moral standards go the way of the dodo because it’s take what everyone else is taking or lose.
So athletes have a choice: dope or lose (again, I know there are exceptions). Athletes are thus expected to do two impossible things: they have to win, to be the best, to beat opponents who are using drugs. But they are expected to do it without the drug advantage that their opponents have. They just have to want it more, to work harder. Like a good little God fearing Puritan would.
Sometimes religion is a big player in this because it’s another part of American history. I once saw an athlete assert that “I’m going to win a medal because my belief in God is stronger than any drug.” His failure to medal tells me that dianabol works better than Believing in an Imaginary Friend. Oh lord, the comments that will generate.
Don’t Let Me CATCH You Doing That
In any case, that’s the situation for American athletes; they have to win and be larger and life but do it without help of the chemical kind. At the very least they can’t get caught. People overlooked the fact that Barry Bonds morphed from a lean wiry guy into an action figure; hell his head got bigger. They attributed it to his weight program and ‘working hard in the off-season’. When he got busted, nobody wanted to hear it. When the evidence was insurmountable about his drug use, he became a pariah overnight. His legend is tainted and always will be.
Because dog help any athlete that gets caught doing drugs. Because then they are in an even more impossible situation. If they come clean about their drug use, well…they might as well have punched a baby. So they are forced to lie to the American public, something else that we only stand for in certain situations. If they are honest, they lose, if they lie they lose. They can’t win no matter what they do.
Athletes will come up with the most amazing stories and excuses for why they failed a dope test. They’ll blame the testers for doing something wrong with the sample, accuse someone of spiking their drink, blame a tainted supplement. And those are the simple stories. One US cyclist, found with high levels of HCG in his system claimed an odd medical condition where one of two twins will absorb the other fetus and that throws off blood levels of the hormone. Anything to avoid admitting the truth.
And now they are lying to the American public which is almost as bad. And when, eventually, the evidence is just too insurmountable to deny, they will come clean. Or keep trying to blame someone else (“The coach said it was just vitamins and I was just an unknowing, trusting kid.”) Sometimes they do just keep denying, maybe write a tell-all book and hope people buy the bullshit. Or go the mea culpa route and start telling kids not to do drugs for the rest of their career. Or just disappear and hope everybody forgets.
Like I said, it’s an impossible situation. America holds it’s athletes to not only a different but a higher and, frankly, impossible standard. And it comes out of our background, our mentality, our screwed up ideas about a lot of stuff. We want athletes to achieve something that is impossible without doing something that we consider a sin. Because in our idolization of athletes, we’ve moved them up to near deity status. At the very least they are role models.
Like I said, we don’t idolize scientists, academics or most anybody else. But we do idolize celebrities and athletes are part of that. A rock star can do drugs and have sex with tons of women and we expect (and respect that). We can even accept if our athletes are violent as hell because violence is ok in this country. A football player beats the crap out of 4 guys in a bar, that’s just boys being boys. If he uses anabolic steroids, he’s worse than any criminal. Because now he’s setting a bad example for children. We have to think of the children and somehow athletes are supposed to be the best, always win, do it clean and be a role model. Because our perspectives about this stuff are totally screwed.
And to be honest, I forget what the point of all of the above was other than getting it out of my head. It relates somehow to the Olympic lifting topic I’m supposed to be talking about and hopefully I’ll remember how by the time I get there. Something about the drug issue, I would imagine.
The above, as with other parts of this week’s ramblings come from too many sources for me to begin to list them (most of it comes from living in this country for 40 years and just observing all the silly shit that goes on) and many have already been cited. One good one for a look at the realities of drug testing is:
Drugs, Sports and Politics by Robert Voy – Voy was the head of US drug testing and has inside insight on what really goes on with testing at the highest levels. An eye-opening read.
And that brings a close to this week’s insanity, ending my overgeneralized look at America in terms of geography, economics, culture and sociology and sports in general. Basically it’s the same exact stuff I looked at when I looked at all of the other dominant sports systems, I just looked at it in far more detail. Because for all of my apparent negativity, America does generate some amazing athletes and dominate certain sports. Which I’ll start talking about on Monday.
Because to understand a given countries attutide or approach to sports, you have to understand that country and it’s background. And I’ve lived in America my whole life, I feel that I understand it pretty well. Now, hopefully you do to. Perhaps more than you ever wanted to. And a lot of this was just background, information that I will refer back to again (admit it, you’re all wondering what in the hell that tangent about our city structure had to do with this but all will be explained).
I want to make it clear that I didn’t say anything I said about America to be mean spirited or nasty; anymore than my comments about other countries were meant to be nasty or even positive (someone accused me of idolizing the Eastern European countries or some nonsense which is about as far from the truth as you could get).
I’m an American at heart and in a weird way I do love this country (while disliking many aspects of it). I can’t imagine living anywhere else and I was just trying to describe the situation as I see it. Yes, I was exaggerating and being a bit hyperbolic at places to make a point or make a joke. But not as much as you might think. Live here for long enough and you’ll see everything I’ve described and more.
Certainly some will disagree with my characterization of a lot of things, that’s fantastic; write your own article series and present your own arguments and data points. But I think if you look objectively at the US, in terms of what actually happens. That is, don’t just focus on what you want to have happen or what happens in your small enclave of literati friends drinking Bolivian coffee at the poetry jam.
Get out into the world, go to Walmart on a Sunday at 4pm and mingle with real people. You’ll see that what I wrote is closer to right than wrong, at least in terms of the majority. Because talking about sports in this country means talking about the majority. The minority doesn’t matter until they are worth $100 million to the NFL.
And with all of that finally out of the way, I will turn my eye on Monday to the specifics of the American sport system, the sports we dominate in, etc. just like I did for all of the other examples. On Monday, I’ll start with America’s no system sports system. All leading up to a final discussion of OL’ing that I hope to get to before 2012. Maybe.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 14
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 1
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 13
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 7
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Notes to the Nitpickers