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75 Home Runs? How About 100?
If big-league baseball players go on strike, maybe the owners should replace them with robots. What difference does it make if you see Sammy Sosa hit a home run or a robot hit a home run? Anyway, how do you now Sammy Sosa isn't already a robot?
I'm being perfectly serious. It was thought big news last week when baseball players agreed to be tested for using the performance-enhancing substances known as steroids. Steroids, or something like the human-growth factor EPO, combined with strength-training, can pump up the volume of your muscle density to that of, say, a 16-year-old female Chinese Olympic swimmer. Or an Italian soccer player. Or a Bulgarian weightlifter.
In all of human endeavor, including corporate governance, there may be no more shamed activity now than the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Sports columnists unified to mock baseball's steroids proposal. Every Olympics brings a hailstorm of anti-drug jeremiads, even as more Olympians are caught and driven from Eden.
Maybe this is a waste of time. Maybe it's time to let the Robot Games begin. Let baseball's owners cut a deal with the Major League Robots Association. Face facts: Many professional athletes are no longer normal human beings; using drugs now, and with the weird science and training of the future, they are turning themselves into athletic robots. Stop lying awake worrying about what's legal or "clean" and give these robots a league of their own.
Everyone who's ever competed hard in sports hates the idea of playing on a tilted field. But nearly everyone played their sports as an amateur. Most fans don't fully understand just how far removed athletic performance at the professional level is, in nearly every respect, from their own modest experience with the sport. Get real. These athletes are performing on another galaxy, as amateur batter Michael Jordan found out.
As cheating is currently defined, so much of it goes on in paid sport that you can't get your arms around it. In the just-finished Tour de France, the third-place cyclist from Lithuania is a fugitive from French authorities who arrested his wife, who says her bagful of testosterone, corticoids and growth hormone was for her "ailing mother." Last month the executive director of Australia's Sports Drug agency got in trouble for saying the physiques appearing in women's tennis are "bizarre, like the Chinese swimmers were . . . . You do not become like that by working out in the gym."
In 1998 John Maher of the Austin American-Statesman tried to compile all the publicized illegal and legal incidents in world-wide sports involving enhanced performance. It's a huge list: baseball, shot-putting, soccer, cycling, mountain biking, speedskating, weightlifting, bobsledding, Chinese and Irish swimmers, sprinters, rugby, University of Tennessee football and the Denver Broncos (legal creatine), an Indonesian badminton player and an English snooker player on andosterone. This was the year Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs, and "andro" became a household word.
The International Olympic Committee's latest "Prohibited Classes of Substances and Prohibited Methods" runs for pages. The tip of the iceberg includes "stimulants, narcotics, anabolic androgenic steroids, Beta-2 agonists, diuretics, peptide hormones, mimetics, analogues" and a really interesting thing called "insulin-like growth factor," or IGF-1.
Causing the body to produce more IGF-1 is a goal of gene researchers seeking to alleviate, say, osteoarthritis. Once perfected, though, it could be deployed to enhance the relevant shoulder muscles of, say, a quarterback or pitcher. You can detect it -- with a biopsy.
The August issue of Wired magazine has an article about the Oregon Project, an effort by Nike, the shoe maker, to use technology to create world-class American marathoners. Their runners live in a Portland house, at sea level, that uses molecular filters to create the blood-oxygenating effect of living in thin air at 12,000 feet. The project also uses the OmegaWave Sports Technology System, which purports to measure an athlete's "central nervous system, gas exchange and cardiopulmonary system, detoxification system and hormonal system."
A few years ago, a top Australian discus thrower named Werner Reiterer wrote a poignant account of why he began using drugs after watching provenly inferior athletes at international meets throw farther. "With a heavy heart, I made a decision to . . . turn myself from a natural athlete into a normal athlete." For professionals, that odd-sounding construction -- natural athletes and normal athletes -- is the proper division now, or surely soon will be.
My own instincts and sympathies on this subject conform to Reiterer's regretful turn to robotics. But it's time to move on. Either that or stop paying them. Professional sports means that athletes get compensated on the basis of one thing and one thing only -- winning or high-performance numbers (sort of the way we compensate executives for performance measured almost wholly in terms of share price). A professional athlete is a corporation of One, with a grinding schedule. When the gun goes off or the first ball is thrown, no accounting tricks, no agents, no fans, no nothing is going to help that athlete put up big numbers or wins other than whatever's inside his or her body. And so long as that's true, many for-profit athletes are never going to forgo the booster shots of sports science merely to conform to someone else's notions of what's "clean" in sports.
If these men and women want to turn themselves into robots, some dying and deforming themselves along the way, let them. Just as baseball has the "deadball era" of 1901-1919, announcers can refer to the records of the "pre-robot era" of 1919-1998. ESPN could use computers to create robo-Dan Patricks, with artificial intelligence, to cover robo-players with artificial bodies. And the sports cops could spend their resources where it might matter -- in the schools, now a jungle of experimentation.
Some athletes won't want to become robots. And some fans won't want to watch. In time, non-robot leagues will form for natural athletes. It will still be competition. I'll watch.
Updated August 16, 2002
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