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When Cheaters Prosper

When Cheaters Prosper

Humanizing Sport’s Doping Culture

In a match worthy of a Grand Slam final, Maria Sharapova defeated Simona Halep in this year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament in three highly-competitive sets. For Ms. Sharapova, emotions were running high; this event marked her return to the women’s professional tennis circuit after a 15-month ban, one that was imposed after she tested positive for an illegal substance in her blood.

Sharapova is just the latest in a long line of high-profile doping scandals among both professional and amateur athletes. She argued that hers was an “honest mistake,” since the substance that she tested positive for (meldonium) was one that she had been using for many years, and had only recently been added to the list of prohibited. As a result, her initial ban of two years was reduced to 15 months. Why would an athlete use meldonium?

At one time the word scandal applied to poverty, hunger, homelessness, and injustice.

Covert use of performance-enhancing substances — aka “cheating” — is as old as organized sports. Even the Ancient Greeks are said to have taken “potions” to enhance their athletic prowess. Today, with one drug-cheating revelation after another splashed across the headlines, many people are so fed up they now regard most exceptional performances with skepticism and disbelief. The barring of the entire Russian track and field team from competing in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, and the saga of cyclist Lance Armstrong – which ended in his being stripped of an Olympic bronze medal along with his seven Tour de France titles – have become glaring examples of the dishonesty, greed and manipulation in sports that seem so abhorrent to our sense of “good sportsmanship.”

Of course, it would be a mistake to blame athletes alone for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The pressure to win at all costs in professional sports is unimaginably intense; it is applied by coaches, governments, the media, scientists, sponsors, sports federations, spectators, and even teammates. In his book Spitting in the Soup, sports journalist Mark Johnson explores the dark money and covert national interests that keep drugs in sports. Johnson unwinds the doping culture from the early days, and uncovers the complex relationships that underlie elite sports culture―the essence of which is not to play fair, but to push the boundaries of human performance.

Personally, I have nothing against pushing the boundaries of human performance; in fact, I’m a fan of that perspective. However, as in most things, we miss the mark when we take it too far. Even if we put aside the notion of good sportsmanship, there are huge risks associated with taking performance enhancing substances. Professional athletes who do so risk body breakdown, neuromuscular and hormonal imbalance, as well as severe organ stress and joint dysfunction. Even everyday athletes and students are headed down that slippery slope, as suggested by the disturbingly high sales of Human Growth Hormone.

A Silver Lining

Now, the good news. There are strategies for powerfully altering the biochemistry of the human body that are completely natural, life-enhancing, and legal. Take the inspiring story of distance runner Shalane Flanagan. Flanagan, who won a bronze medal for her performance in the 10,000-meter run in the Beijing 2008 Olympic games, was recently awarded the silver medal for that competition — a result of the disqualification of second-place finisher Elvan Abeylegesse of Turkey, who tested positive for a banned substance.

Flanagan’s secret weapon? “Ever since I started tackling longer distances, I began to realize what an important role nutrition plays in my performance. It’s literally just as important as sleep, or the amount of time I put into my running. Eating healthy helps me recover, makes me happy and enhances my overall training.” 

In her book Run Fast, Eat Slow, Flanagan offers an overview of the dietary strategy that for many years has kept her performing at an elite level: “I fuel my body with nutrient dense whole foods, love to cook with good fats like butter and olive oil, and I get my protein fix from high quality meat like grass fed beef and bison.”

Flanagan encourages other athletes to “enjoy and celebrate real food.” There may be secret elements to Ms. Flanagan’s own nutritional approach to her athletic training – e.g. certain vitamins, minerals or herbal supplements – that she has not revealed to us in this book. One could certainly forgive her – in the spirit of healthy, clean competition – for such an omission. And it would not detract from her already generous offering, and the inspiring example she sets as an athlete whose success is a wholly natural one. It’s easy, and heartening, to imagine that Shalane Flanagan will be running in good health well into her golden years. It’s not so easy to consider that those who used banned substances may have a very different experience down the road, haunted not only by the shadow of controversy, but by a host of debilitating physical ailments.

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