Karl Marx picked the wrong horse. Religion placed a poor second to sports in the opium-of-the-people sweepstakes.
The Romans and Greeks understood better than that pompous philosopher. They knew we needed heroes to cheer and villains to boo — or turn thumbs down upon in the most fatal fashion.
As spectators, we could accept most things, but one aspect was always crucial. We needed a level playing field. Our sense of fair play and justice demanded that; no matter how hard we urged one side or combatant to win.
What joy in seeing your hero win if the dice were fixed?
Which is why the latest in a never-ending litany of drugs-in-sport scandals deals another blow to our love affair with this singularly human endeavour.
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez — baseball’s top earner — was banned for 211 games for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
A-Rod, as he was affectionately named, is of course appealing. The 38-year-old doesn’t have much option, as such sanction and resulting opprobrium spells the sad end of his glittering career, unless he can worm out of the mess.
He wasn’t alone. Another dozen players were caught. That black eye — hardly the first in that particular sport — follows a recent string of such exposures, from the failed drug testing of three top sprinters to questions about government-sponsored doping of West German athletes from the 1970s, to the wholesale swallowing of who-knows-what by dozens of top Turkish track and field stars.
Every week, there’s a new shame. The average fan can only ask is any sport clean? Can we believe any performance is untainted?
And when our heroes are unveiled as having feet of clay — or veins of EPO — we cast them aside or throw them in prison.
We have invested our faith, our belief and even our love, and we have been spurned. Revenge — moral outrage or grand jury indictment — seems our only recourse.
Sport stirs such emotions — it once did in Calgary when we had a team capable of making the playoffs — but it is time to look rationally at this whole issue.
Imagine being a professional athlete. The years of training, the sacrifices and roads not travelled, until you sit on the verge of the big leagues or World Cup.
And, across the changing room is the competitor. Is she taking some illicit substance? Has she that edge?
Later that day, you fail. Later still, a coach whispers: “I can give you that yard, that second.”
Do you listen? Yes, you do. Athletes don’t get to that point without a savage will to win. The pain of defeat is harder than victory’s glory.
Taking the drug only levels the playing field — such is the mindset. Just ask Tyler Hamilton.
His remarkable book, The Secret Race, detailed the wholesale, systematic doping at the Tour de France.
He explains his own descent into that world with the chilling reflection that, while it would be possible for a clean rider to win a one- or two-day event, there is absolutely no chance any cyclist could win the Tour outright, nor any latter stage. He reasons such a gruelling, three-week event breaks down the body so much, only a cornucopia cocktail of drugs each night can keep riders in contention.
Once upon a time, Lance Armstrong, a former teammate, called it all lies and threatened lawsuits. Now he tells Oprah he wants to apologize to Hamilton.
So what is to be done? We have two options.
Either declare open season and let athletes swallow what they want. Morally it is tough, but it levels the field.
Or instead, test properly. Every event, test everyone, then test them all again. It is that simple. But as fans, we must be prepared to accept slower times and countless scandals. It isn’t done now because billions of bucks are at stake.
Those who run these sports need those viewers and the first-class flights and top hotels that come in tandem. Exposing that they are astride an illicit drug-taking empire isn’t good for ratings or winter tans.
But in short order, sport would be clean. The athlete won’t look across the room and wonder if that rival is juiced. And a team might still not make the finals, but at least they’ll fail fairly.
Chris Nelson is a Calgary writer. His column appears every Thursday.
© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald