Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Doping and Sport, Especially Cycling

        The wise or educated person knows what things are for, not simply how they work.  The wise athlete, therefore, knows what high purpose sport serves, not simply how to hit a curve ball or how to ride in a paceline.  At the highest level, the proper understanding of what sports really are, what sports do, why sports exist, and how they ought to be pursued, is a philosophical and theological quest, not simply an athletic one.  You find the answer in your head, not on a bike; you find it best by thinking, not simply by pedaling.
         If ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates are right, then the proper end of sport, indeed the proper end of all human endeavor, is the beautification of the soul.  The pursuit of things good, true and beautiful -- which cycling can be -- has a positive and even therapeutic effect on your inner life -- but only if you pursue it properly and well.  Cheating is not the way.
         Wise athletes measure themselves against themselves.  They are not tyrannized by public opinion because they know better than the public just what they themselves could and should have accomplished, but did not, even though they won.  Wise athletes know the secret moments when their own fear and self-doubt led to hesitation and to soft-pedaling.  They know how many times the mere thought of pain (and not actual pain itself) convinced them to slow down, to hold back, to play it safe, and to save face.  Wise athletes know first-hand just how often cowardice flatters itself by posing as prudence.  They know about performing poorly and finishing first, as well as about performing heroically and finishing third.  If such athletes have not yet buried their soul or their conscience, they know enough never to settle for a cowardly first when a heroic third can be gotten.  They know how much it costs inwardly to cheat.  They know that a clear conscience is a greater, more beautiful, and more satisfying trophy than any they ever got atop any podium anywhere.
         The wise athlete understands what Michael Novak meant when he observed that “to win” is an ambiguous concept.  “To win” is not synonymous with the most points, the highest average, or the fastest finish.  Losers sometimes finish first.  What makes them losers is not their place in the finish order, but their place in the hierarchy of moral virtue and self-respect.  Wise athletes know that there is no difference between a cheater and a quitter.  Both have stopped playing the game.
         In short, sport is a vale of soul-making, one where you are how you compete.  Conduct is identity.  Cheaters know who and what they really are. 
         To turn from the ancient philosophers to the ancient theologians, the measure of all things is divine, not human.  In that light, the justification for sport is its capacity to glorify God.  When the human body and human spirit accomplish remarkable things, it glorifies the God who made them.  Beating the odds, however steep they might be -- that’s how we should live.  Heroic achievement in the face of great obstacles and fearsome enemies, the days when we are David slaying Goliath -- that’s what God meant for us.  Victories of that sort, and God’s intense desire for us to accomplish them, are a window into the fiery and majestic heart of the God who made us, and in whose image we are. 
         But beating all odds is not the same as cheating all odds:  When you lose, you lose; and when you cheat, you lose.  Cheaters are not only quitters, they are losers too, even when they finish first.  Cheating means that the accomplishment was not really an accomplishment at all, but a fraud, a mirage, and  a fake.  Those who perpetrate these misdeeds are athletic quacks and charlatans.  By those athletic crooks and their chicanery, the God of truth and virtue is not glorified.  By their pathetic endeavors at immortality, they succeed merely in belittling and demeaning themselves and the sport in which they pretend to compete.
         To wise athletes, therefore, the greatest satisfaction comes from meeting the risks and challenges of fair play and surviving to win nevertheless.  That enormous satisfaction withers when you transgress the rules by which all others compete.  Who could not win a bike race in which all other riders carried an extra 20 lb. burden, or were forced to ride on softened tires?  Beating them is not really sport, not really cycling, not really victory.
         In long-distance cycling events like The Race Across America, or even in races whose parameters are not so daunting, we know that the perfect policing of all participants is not possible.  To some large degree, therefore, we are left in the unenviable and unavoidable position of falling back on human nature to police itself, something it has an exceedingly difficult time doing well.  That confluence of unhappy facts means that we can’t stop all the cheaters.  Indeed we can stop only one -- the one inside our own jersey. 
         The ones we can’t stop must be dealt with another way.  The ones we can’t stop we can beat.  In those cases, the challenge is not simply to police the rider on your own bike, or even on someone else’s, but to get so impressively good at what you do on that bike that even the cheaters can’t beat you.

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