Monday, October 15, 2012

Looking into the Soul of Sport

Last week in my graduate seminar on science and technology studies we had a chance to sit down (virtually) with Brad Allenby and Dan Sarewitz, professors at Arizona State University and the authors of The Techno-Human Condition (MIT, 2011). In it they explore the consequences of the continuing integration of human beings and our technologies (a review here). Their book raises some difficult questions about what it means to be human in our modern, technological era. They argue that there is no sharp line distinguishing the human from the technological -- whether vaccines, eyeglasses, Google or any other technologies, humans and technologies are one.

Early on they invoke sport when they write:
The Tour de France has become as much a race that pits the latest doping techniques against the newest detection technologies as a contests amongst the cyclists.
In our class discussion last week Allenby raised the possibility (not the preference, I should note) that athletics might just do away with the fiction that top athletes today are anything other than techno-human hybrids, regardless where the rules draw imaginary lines.

Allenby is not alone with this suggestion. In the aftermath of the USADA report on Lance Armstrong's doping practices, Malcolm Gladwell offered a similar reaction:
"Here's my thing about Lance, and that is, our paradigm is wrong for biking. What if we thought about bicycling as just the equivalent of auto racing. It's Formula 1.

"What is Formula 1? It's the combination of a car, so an instrument. A driver, and the driver's skill. And science. So Formula 1 teams compete on these three levels simultaneously. We compete to see who has the fastest driver, we compete to see who has the best car, and we also compete in our ability to innovate within the rules, to use science to further the performance of our driver within those constraints.

"So, what if we thought about Lance and competitive cycling as auto racing. It's on three levels: you got a bike, you got a driver, and you got science. When you look at what Lance is alleged to have done, basically he was better than everyone else at using PEDs. He was the guy who sat down and was rigorous and focused and thoughtful and intelligent and cutting edge in how to use them, and apply them and make himself better. Like, I don't know, so is that a bad thing? He's being rewarded for being the best at his game. It was an element in the competition, and he used that element better than anyone else.

"Why don't we just make that a part of the definition of what it means to be a great bicyclist?"
Armstrong clearly violated the letter of the law insofar as the rules of USADA have been promulgated. But one has a harder case arguing that Armstrong violated the de facto norms of his sport. The contemporary institutional arrangements were obviously not up to the task of (publicly) identifying Armstrong's violations much less sanctioning them.

Further, Armstrong's violations of the formal rules has landed him a net worth of a reported $125 million and annual sponsorship deals worth more than $15 million. He has been handsomely rewarded for his violation of the formal rules and despite the evidence against him, his sponsors Nike, Radio Shack and Anheuser-Busch are all standing behind Armstrong. Nike explained, "Nike plans to continue to support Lance."

Armstrong's sponsors are operating under a different set of values and norms than those expressed by WADA. Professional cycling -- but also international federations, governments, sponsirs and the public -- remains of two minds on our techno-human condition. On the one hand the ideals of health, fairness and equality embodied in the WADA Code have been formally adopted by 127 international sporting federations and every country in the world. On the other hand, the case of Lance Armstrong shows that there is not a shared view in practice on the ideals set forth by WADA. The existence of rules absent shared norms is a recipe for a muddled mess.

Modern athletes are in fact techno-human hybrids. Absent bright lines between the human and the technological, if we are going to draw lines then we must draw them based on shared values and, yes, difficult political negotiations. If the formal guidelines come into conflict with the operating norms of sport, then situations like that of professional cycling will remain common. While much of the discussion of the Lance Armstrong case focuses, as it should, on the personalities involved, the issue should also prompt a deeper debate about the very soul of sport itself.


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