Missing the Point I

Prologue: I hadn’t intended to return to the subject of sport so soon, but the publication last week of the new book “exposing” Barry Bonds’ obvious use of performance-enhancing substances over time and the renewed media hoo-hah is too tempting. Unless you’ve lived in a cave since mid-2003, you’ll know that the Bonds case was uncovered incidentally. Seized records disclosed that he was a customer of a “lab” busted by regular in-training testing of elite track and field athletes.

Breaking the rules to gain an edge on the competition is found in every human endeavor, from corporate governance to running red lights; it’s what’s done about it that’s relevant. You already know I’m a big fan of track and field and the Olympic movement from personal experience and, typically, I can tolerate our sports media’s routine ignorance and hypocrisy concerning our “major” and “minor” sports. What I cannot abide is when they wail about the lack of integrity and heroism in modern sport when they can’t find it right under their noses and, worse, when they tar with the same brush those “minor” sports that are serious about detecting and punishing cheaters as the wrist-slapping-when-caught “major” sports by which they are economically enslaved.

A rhetorical question: Outside of political pundits, is there any other class of morons that misses the point more often than sports columnists?

To illustrate, this rant and next reproduce two e-mail exchanges I had with a local columnist over three days, June 14-17, 2004. In his column, he’d swaddled the impending U.S.A. Track and Field Olympic Trials about to begin in our town in the BALCO doping “scandal” to foreshadow the entire sport’s demise. [NOTE: I’ve truncated some details in my messages because I covered them last week and done a little reformatting to accommodate blog requirements; otherwise, they and the responses are verbatim.]

ME: “Well, once again it’s time for the scribes and pharisees of American sport — most of whom, in my experience, attained their exalted positions having done nothing more strenuous in their lives than wrestle kegs to the second floors of frat houses — to pronounce American track and field either on the respirator or dead. The difference this season is that it’s occurring in an Olympic year before the Trials and the Games, due apparently to the fact that the USADA has had the poor judgment to:

  1. Persist in its ongoing efforts to prevent cheating before a competition occurs by detecting and punishing cheaters, and
  2. Do so in public.

I regret that you’ve joined this anti-Greek chorus; I especially regret that you’ve done it in such a hollow and uninformed way.

I won’t bother with the obvious, jarring hypocrisies; I noticed in one of the BALCO retread stories in the Bee the other day a reference to “this ever-widening scandal.” There hasn’t been a new fact adduced in months. It followed another piece that devoted several thousand words to the notion that Barry Bonds might not have taken performance-enhancing substances. Forget “performance-enhancing”– our “major” sport millionaires are so cocooned that their sanctioned drug-testing regimes (if you can even call them that without snickering) protect them from multiple offenses involving illegal (as in, “you and I go to jail”) substances. You have no clue what USATF athletes agree to and do to remain in competition; evidently, you don’t care, either. The two sustaining quotes in your column: one from a local, former “mentor” of an athlete who trains elsewhere and a professor of veterinary science with expertise in horse doping! In case you do one day develop a taste for actual research, here’s the USADA’s web site. Take 10 minutes to learn what these athletes put themselves through, voluntarily.

My family, friends, acquaintances, and I will be at the Trials. We have two all-event passes and blocks of 20 reserved-seat and 15 general-admission tickets for the two days of the decathlon. Many other people we know will be there, too, at their own expense. Why? Simple. There is a young man competing who grew up in our house and has nourished himself on the Olympic dream for 10 years, to the exclusion of nearly all else save his college degree. He is not a cheater, nor are his dozens of friends and hundreds of peers who will be chasing that dream in July. They have willingly submitted themselves to the most comprehensive set of rules ever designed to advance the ideal of clean competition. The overwhelming majority of compliant athletes have no popular voice, most probably because they don’t have phalanxes of agents, lawyers, and flacks running interference for them; their integrity is its own reward. All they want is for names to be named and penalties to be assessed so the idle, irresponsible speculation you in the media indulge in with such regularity will cease. We will be there to honor him and all of them for their dedication and sacrifice to what they do, especially in the face of all this published and broadcast nonsense.

We are track and field fans for life and we owe this to our son’s sharing this dream with us. How have we been enriched, you ask? The lessons learned or reinforced in our shared experience include:

  • It’s not the destination, but the journey — not the grades earned, but the lessons learned. How you conduct yourself is at least as important as what you win.
  • Even in an “individual” sport, no one climbs the mountain alone. You owe what you achieve in equal measures to those who have gone before, those who lift you up with their own hands and hearts, and those who will follow.
  • The best of competitions occur in an atmosphere of civility and respect. This is nowhere more apparent than in the multi-events. t is possible to unite in common purpose, contest vigorously, and remain close throughout.
  • Sport need not be violent to be spirited. Rules are rules; the more they are bent or ignored, the more competition is degraded. Men’s professional basketball—to settle momentarily on Section C’s “heroes” du jour, who are busily churning out excuses as to why they cannot be bothered to represent their country in Athens — is rugby in underwear, in my opinion. Size and brute force are not synonymous with athletic skill. At its best, sport is raising and surpassing human thresholds, not bullying others into submission.
  • We are all citizens of the world. I’m more convinced than ever that the international arena of sport is our best chance to win and secure the peace — especially with the know-nothing, neo-isolationists who are running things in the geopolitical realm right now.
  • Tradition. The multievents have been measuring the greatest warrior-athletes since the seventh century before Christ; the first Olympics was held in 776 B.C. and continued virtually uninterrupted for 1,100 years. This year, the decathlon will be contested at its ancestral birthplace in the Cradle of Democracy.
  • Duty, honor, country. My son was given the chance to pursue his dream by the grace of the U.S. Army’s Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) operations, the program which subsidizes the U.S. Army’s World-Class Athlete Program with non-tax dollars, for which he was selected after he enlisted. (He was at boot camp on September 11, 2001.) Here’s the WCAP’s web site, in case you’re interested.

Barring commercial sponsorship — like the U.S. Decathlon Team had from Visa from 1990-99 — he realized it was the only way he would be able to train full-time. His time in service changed his perspective dramatically; he was exposed to citizens totally different from himself. After his WCAP hitch is up this Fall, he wants to continue to serve his country by dedicating his intellect, physical skills, and human knowledge to going into harm’s way to help others. Even accounting for the risk, what more could a parent hope for?

It’s bad enough that you folks in sports journalism choose to exalt the wrong athletes to begin with and persist in propping them up. It’s despicable that you spend your indignation on those you otherwise ignore. Like all the parents of willful, dedicated overachievers in “minor” (your word) Olympic sports, we’ve had a sweet and intriguing journey for a decade that’s given us a lifetime of memories to savor, right under your noses, and you’ve missed every bit of it. At best, you’re enforcing your own irrelevance as to what’s truly important. At worst, you’re moneychangers in the temple.”

Next week: Response and Round Two.


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