The Rules of Engagement

by kevbalance Comments (1) Articles, Commentary

This article, by Joe Navas, first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 edition of our magazine.

rules of engagement navas cover art 12.14.14

Laws.  We as a society have them for virtually anything and everything.  In sport, they are referred to as “rules,” so as to distinguish them (however narrow the difference may be) from the laws of real life.

In the trading of stocks, laws exist regarding the exchange of information. These are in place, among other reasons, to keep everyone on the same page and timeline, letting all consumers through the doors at the same time so to speak.  No insider information.  No special advantages.

Such an advantage given to anyone, and especially someone who has great wealth or power or influence, is universally regarded as unfair and damaging to the integrity of the structure because, well, it is.

But why? If the stock market is essentially a game in which people compete to win the most equity, why is the element of hidden relationships and backroom dealings not accepted as simply another element of competition and, thus, fair play? Everyone who works in the stock market has access to a computer, phone, and bank.  Everyone gathers in the same arena to compete. So why not remove all regulation and allow for total, anarchic freedom?  Because then we go to infinity.  An infinity that obfuscates morals, ethics, and integrity.

What all laws/rules have in common is that they put in place a faceless, unbiased arbiter of something organized and finite, and with that comes structure and with that comes an arena that allows measured performance and because of that we get comparison and that comparison is another word for competition.

Which brings us to running.

For the sake of fairness, competitions need rules.  In our sport, these rules were agreed upon long ago and are continually updated in an attempt to keep the playing field level and, perhaps just as importantly, to preserve history and thereby a measurable, palpable progression of the human as athlete.

The one entity that has managed to stay a step ahead of the rules is the group of athletes who have ignored the very thing that measures the progression of the human as athlete. Since the days of the mighty Eastern Bloc teams that competed internationally in the 70’s and 80’s, it has been the dark not-so-secret of athletics that there exists a subculture of science, one that takes the advancements of nutrition and training via the traditional methods of measuring vitamin levels and caloric input, aerodynamics, sleep, altitude training, etc., and looks at what happens when someone has something like, say, artificially increased red blood cell counts or large amounts of amphetamines charging their heart.

Nike has labs, China has labs, the USOC has labs. The people in these labs, both the scientists and the athletes, are charged with the same task: find a way to win. For the scientist, it means discovering something that the other guys don’t have and finding a way to employ it without breaking the machine, err athlete. For the athlete, it means discovering any way to beat the other athletes. Period.

rules of engagement navas quote page 12.14.14Making the relationship between these groups as tenuous as it is intriguing is this observation: These are not ordinary people. The scientist is among the best in his field, probably studied at MIT, worked at a limitless (read: infinity) cutting edge facility. He is like the other group, the athlete, in many ways. He rose to the top via hard work and talent and then applied an absolute passionate fanaticism to his pursuit. He enters the game because he finds something terribly fascinating about  humans, and though the mechanical aspects of the species might be the priority in this infatuation, this particular scientist nonetheless decides to ignore that little thing called ethics in a vainglorious attempt at vicarious stardom.

The athlete is different. He is likely not as well paid, but as long as he has enough to eat and some basic amenities, he’s in on the deal too.  Leaving his hometown where he was most certainly big fish in a small pond, the athlete comes to these labs on his own accord. He competed in State Championships and won  by hefty margins. He went to college and found that there were a handful of peers his age scattered around the country who were at his level. Then he went to an international competition and got his ass handed to him, and so now, the drive and fanatical training that enabled him to even get there, must be increased, as he, by now, has at least some idea of his own athletic mortality and if he wants to be the best, the window of opportunity has to be exploited and utilized by any… means… necessary.

But whoa, whoa, whoa… Not all athletes are like him. They’re not all so possessed by a will to win that they are willing to forgo morality in order to do so, quite the opposite in most cases.

The endurance sports - cycling, running, swimming - all require endless hours on the bike, on the roads, in the pool.  The whole idea of training to go longer and faster is based on the principle that progress is only made by continually stressing the body just beyond what it is already capable of, allowing it to heal and rest, and then doing it again.  The type of mental toughness that it takes to train in this manner for days, weeks, and years on end simply cannot come from a person who lacks resolve.  This person has made the conscious, constant decision that this very difficult thing is not only worth it but also the right thing to do.

So how does it happen that the scientist comes to inject the athlete with an unfair advantage?

Well, because in today’s world the athlete is no longer just an athlete.  He lives only in one space within a much broader spectrum of interconnected components.

Long ago, the athlete competed in an athletic arena, was coached by athletic coaches, and was known by athletic fans. The traditions of training and competing were analyzed and compared, modified and improved, but were also done universally, with innovations coming, usually, collectively and gradually. It was rare that a voice outside the small community of athletics had a say in the day to day preparation of the athlete.  But they do now.

Regarding new sciences and approaches, when an innovation would come along that radically changed the landscape, often the initial response was to ban it or at least view it with disdain. Why? Because it took everyone away from being on the same page. It messed with the measurement.

But these innovations were non-universal only by their being just that – innovative. If they had any integrity, they stuck and were adopted by most if not all, thereby keeping the field level. While the innovation may alter history, it was seen as doing so in a way that could be applauded, championed and adopted as it had come from the thing that athletics celebrates the most: human achievement.  Otherwise, we’d still be conducting the Olympics on cinder tracks and not synthetic ones.

Drugs, even if everyone used them, are a different story. Why? Because, first of all, they are not necessarily safe. If a bike was designed that was 20% faster but 5% of the bikes fell apart at high speeds, there’s no way cycling’s governing body would ever allow anyone to use it in competition.

Drugs are different than vitamins and minerals. They toy with the most fundamental elements of the body in a way that vitamins and minerals do not. One way to think about it is the difference between using high-octane gas in NASCAR or using it plus nitrous oxide. Imagine the damage that would happen to cars and drivers, not to mention record books if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was allowed to hit a button on the straightaway and go from 186 mph to 270 mph in a few seconds.

So, when did things change and how?  At some point, sports became really, really important.

In the 70’s it was the way one country showed its dominance over another.  It was the way one government could show another that it was superior because its populace produced more medals.

In the 80’s it was more of the same, but sports also began to become a major advertising tool, which in turn added exorbitant amounts of money to the pot that  the athletes and scientists and now the sponsoring corporations could build and access.

In the 90’s the machine that had made all the money combined with the advent of global communication and soon, every big-time athlete was known not only to their respective country and fan base but to an entire world.

This progression eventually brought us to here.

“Here” is a place where every athlete knows what’s at stake. They know how to work to get there. They know what needs to be done and only some know what needs not to be done.  “Here” is when the athlete sees the chance to rise to that global stage, that place where he cannot only fulfill his dream of competing against and perhaps even beating these like-minded combatants, but he can also make a career out of it.

That last part is another somewhat new factor in the equation. While the major sports of the world (soccer, baseball, tennis, football, hockey, etc.) have salaried their athletes in a way that made the sport their sole occupation, the endurance sports have only recently allowed their athletes such a privilege. So far gone are the days of the gentleman runner who holds a full time job.

We have the history and we have the “here.”  What does it all mean? How does it add up to the spate of recent indictments of high level athletes for using performance enhancing drugs?

It does add up. It adds up in the sense that you have a man like Lance Armstrong, who really did have cancer that nearly killed him, who really did choose a method of treatment that was more aggressive and more painful and more debilitating and perhaps not even as effective, just so he could get back to training and competing. Let me stress that- just so he could get back to training and competing.

Martin Fagan, the great Irish runner who is as well-respected and liked a man as you’ll find, got caught using PED’s and admitted it, saying quite candidly that he was simply trying to find a way to stay in the sport.

Christian Hesch, the colorful, arrogant California runner that served as a symbol of hope for that talented but decidedly sub-elite set of runners around the world, got caught and exposed in a way that, appropriately, became as much of a circus as the public life of the man himself.

Hesch came out as a cheater and a liar at the same time, stating that he only used the drugs to help come back from injury, rather than actually use them to compete.

Needless to say, this had him splattered across the internet for far longer than his decidedly superior counterpart Fagan.

Don’t get me wrong. Fagan doesn’t get a pass. He knew precisely what he was doing. He was simply so possessed by the thought of getting back to the level that he was once at, being there, perhaps surpassing it, that he completely lost track of who he was or why he was doing it.

The reason why I and many other go a bit easier on him is because he didn’t try to justify it. He knew he did wrong, but like any addict, he had become something so different from himself, he didn’t get snapped back to the person at the core until something very terrible forced him there, naked, ashamed, and broken. To pounce on him in the state he was in when it all came crashing down would have been pointless and cruel, though to use him as an example of moral weakness and the state of the game can help to educate other athletes as to how this can happen and give them reasons to decide otherwise.

Armstrong and Hesch, on the other hand, the former taking it a much higher level, if only by virtue of his relative importance to the sports/marketing/entertainment landscape, exude arrogance that crosses the border into the pathological. While Fagan could be viewed as someone who was otherwise peaceful and through addiction became a briefly violent individual, Armstrong exhibited all the hallmarks of a habitual abuser.

Hesch merely shouted from the rooftop what many already knew about him. In this analogy, he was the guy who was the first to throw the trash can through the electronic store window when the power went out in the city, later denying he did it until a surveillance camera proved otherwise.

The same drive that enabled Armstrong to make the decisions he did regarding his cancer and to come back to compete the way he did also granted him the power to render himself utterly amoral.  An amorality born out of a single-minded focus to be the absolute best at the only thing he knows how to do.  He took down friends, their families, his teammates, and virtually anyone who got in his way, and when they became an enemy of his construction, instead of brushing them off inconsequentially, he attacked them with the same sort of measured viciousness he used on the Alpe d’huez, pooling resources, changing gears, and concentrating power much in the same way he would before an epic climb.

rules of engagement navas single quote 12.14.14This long breakdown of how this has all come to happen may seem like a long justification. It is not. It is merely one explanation of an ethically unacceptable trend that may not be going away for the foreseeable future.

For people like Fagan and possibly hundreds of second and third tier international competitors who may be exposed in the coming year, it is a bad decision or a series of them. There is no moral justification for it.  What’s worse is that at any level, but especially in the sub-Olympic level, endurance sports have always enjoyed a level of community that other sports have not.  The runner who stands on the line and is about to challenge the person next to him to a battle of pain and danger is often standing next to a friend, someone who’s floor he crashed on, someone who was at his wedding, someone who he has a great history of competing against. But, because of his selfishness, his self-indulgence and his skewed priorities, he is willing to throw it away, knowingly. The ego.  To it, I say, “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say.”

Knowing that this life of the endurance athlete is incredibly and unforgivingly finite, the runner is taking something away from the rival that the latter will never be able to have another shot at, not really, not at that event, that moment. For this alone, regardless of the riches (figurative and literal), should be viewed as an act of immorality having great weight and lasting impact.

Make no mistake, the athlete, regardless of influence, is ultimately the culprit. It is his choice. However, his environment, the big, macro one they share with us, does play a role.

This world is to blame only in that it encourages this kind of behavior by continually illustrating that the end justifies the mean and glorifying the act.  Look no further than the infamous March 5, 2001 Sports Illustrated cover featuring the genetically altered torso of Nomar Garciaparra.  No wonder that people get confused and before we know it we have runners cutting the course (figurative and literal) instead of the tangents.

In the end, what all sport should come down to is that everyone should be busting his respective ass to go hard and do everything, within legal means, to win. The only moral that should prevail is that nothing received without honesty is worth having.  Still, we must acknowledge two things: 1) the temptation to choose incorrectly is not as simplistic as we might think, and 2) we are not as supportive of those who choose correctly as we might all wish.

It’s not to say that the sport can’t reclaim the purity of yesteryear, but we need to look at the rules we make and convince all participants that they are important enough to follow.

Joe Navas is a regular contributor to Level Renner.

If you would like to read more from our Nov/Dec 2012 issue, click here. 


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One Response to The Rules of Engagement

  1. There definitely is no room for any types of performance enhancing drugs in our endurance sports. The hard training should be our drug. Cheers!!!

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