Sunday, January 20, 2013

A pox on both your houses: Cycling and ethics in sports

At regular intervals, the world of sports fans, sports writers, and professional athletes trips over evidence of unethical behaviour nobody can ignore, and a scandal appears on the front pages of sports sections and the lead sections of television news shows.

Today it's Lance Armstrong, and writers and newscasters tell us cycling will have a long road to recovery, as though the malice and deceit widely practiced in a cycling team, or even in an elite cycling race, somehow taints the millions of us who ride for fun, fitness, or just to lighten our carbon footprint.

Like many Canadians, I curl. Most Saturday nights in winter time, I enjoy dinner, play in a friendly game, and have a drink, generally in that order. Curling, like golf, has the virtues of a game that large numbers of people play as well as watch. The competitive impulse plays out in actual participation: instead of impotently hollering at the players on the ice, we  take charge of the game ourselves. It hardly matters who wins: no sports book rides on my skill with the broom, and a good thing too. But if I win and get to buy my opponent a drink, my actual skill at throwing or sweeping has had something to do with the outcome.

I used to see the delusions of "fan" culture as harmless, but Lance Armstrong and others have changed that. People who talk about stripping to their waist wearing body paint in team colours as "supporting" their team or even, as in one advertisement, "giving it a hundred and ten percent": who does such ludicrous behaviour hurt? Nobody, unless you count the effect such hunger for vicarious triumph has on the notion of competition. In games where the fears and frustrations of thousands or even millions of supporters ride on the performance of a few players, they feel pressure to win at any cost. And the habit of not counting the cost begins at a distressingly young age.

I remember reading the story of a kid's baseball game  few years ago, in which the lineup included a strong batter followed by a disabled child. The opposing team decided to walk the strong batter, and the disabled child came to the plate with the bases loaded, already crying, knowing they had been set up to fail and let their teammates down. The person who related this story had no sympathy for the kid with the disability, no concern for what this kind of casual brutality to a disabled child in exchange for a "win" would have taught all the other players. Instead, the person who told the story condemned the kid with the disability, and anyone who sympathized with them, for showing insufficient "toughness". Well, in those terms, Lance Armstrong certainly had enough toughness. If the stories now coming out have any truth to them, he willingly subjected himself and his team mates to destructive drugs to win, and abused anyone who threatened to expose him.

I have come to see this morality play as a variant of Oscar Wilde's horror novel "A Picture of Dorian Gray", except that unlike Oscar Wilde's character, when the ugliness of the picture their shadow self presents becomes manifest, sports fans can take the picture down and put up another. Lance Armstrong has come down, and the professional guardians of mass entertainment sports will spend a few news cycles completing his humiliation and exile, but another portrait awaits its turn on that hook. As long as huge numbers of spectators pour their frustrations or their longings into a game,  players with those hopes and fears riding on them will feel the pressure to do anything at all within the rules to win. But the written rules of a sport cannot encompass kindness, mercy, and love. Justify any act that the rules do not explicitly forbid in the name of winning, and players and coaches will find themselves pushed into acts of plain brutality. And when a player hardened to the cruelty possible within the rules finds the victory the fans crave depends on stepping just outside them, what basis have they left themselves to say no further? And having broken the rules, they must cover up their violation and keep up with the rivals who also cheat, until another fallen sports hero occupies the confessional of the day.

Ian Flemming famously said that once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but the third time it's enemy action. How many investigations into doping and other forms of cheating will the public go through before we ask ourselves whether we ought to go on pouring the hopes and fears of millions of people into a handful of players? How many fallen heroes does it take to make us rethink our idea of heroism?

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