Just before the Tour de France, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Floyd Landis that focused on his origins as a Mennonite–raised boy whose love and talent for mountain biking literally pushed him into the very different world of international cycling.
While the Mennonites are not quite as strict as the Amish (for instance, Landis attended public high school), there’s a charming story about Landis insisting on wearing sweat pants for his first mountain bike race because bicycle shorts were immodest by Mennonite standards.
Jumping ahead a decade and a half later, we have Floyd Landis telling the world that after performing poorly in a critical mountain stage he decided to drown his sorrows in hard liquor and that may have contributed to his unusually high ratio of testosterone to epi-testosterone. Landis’s story comes bizarrely close to the early Farrelly Brothers farce, Kingpin, which traced the rise and corruption of Randy Quaid, a young Amish man, with a passion for bowling.
With Justin Gatlin and Barry Bonds also prominent in the news lately, I have been wondering if a couple generations down the line if our genetically-enhanced, chemically optimized, and possibly bio-cyber equipped descendants will think of us as “Amish”. One sign in my household is that my daughter has a close friend whose parents refuse to have a television or an Internet connection at home, she calls her friend’s family “Amish”, though they’re not religious at all.
Competitive athletics does seem to be one of the last realms where we persist in this sharp moral division between “natural” and “unfairly enhanced”. No one, for instance, complains that Courtney Cox shouldn’t get roles because she went through a late puberty after she did her time as Alex Keaton’s girlfriend on Family Ties. If I remember correctly (yes it’s embarrassing that I know these things) Jenny McCarthy couldn’t get into Playboy pre-plastic surgery despite the fact that she was otherwise quite attractive. To be fair, any number of folks do bemoan the departure of the “natural” body from our popular notions of sexual attractiveness and I'm definitely not sure how the public will react to Mel Gibson or Lindsay Lohan's apparent choices of "enhancement".
I also get a constant flow of spam offering some equivalent form of male enhancement, I still think that my wife got mad at me at some point and turned my name over to a mailing list. I have yet to hear a story of a young woman dumping her boyfriend because he has the same doctor as Rush Limbaugh.
Obviously, we don’t insist that people who wear contact lenses are cheating in life. Most Americans also have very few concerns about artificial hearts or ironically enough the possibility that Floyd Landis might try to compete in cycling with an artificial hip some time in the future.
In fact, Bo Jackson is a particularly interesting case. He’s generally celebrated for trying to play baseball with an artificial hip, yet there are some who point out that the condition may have been brought on by steroid use in the first place (Bo Jackson sued over the latter claims and got an apology, by the way). While it seems easier to draw a line between enhancements and drugs that are “therapeutic” in nature or that address deficits and those that bring one fame and fortune because they let you perform beyond the norm, the line is far fuzzier than people realize.
Consider the example of amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius' story. Prosthetics have now advanced to the point where a double amputee has a significant advantage over a single amputee sprinter. The basic idea is that you can lengthen the stride dramatically by producing very long artificial lower legs. With a single amputee, there’s an upper limit on the length of the prosthetic. Some experts believe that double amputee sprinters will soon be competitive with world class “natural” sprinters and could potentially surpass them.
Could we see a point where serious sprinters start cutting off their lower legs in order to stay competitive?
Not many remember Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, a hall of fame pitcher who had a farming machinery accident and inadvertently developed the “split-finger” fastball. This is unquestionably possible surgically and we’re not far from being able to genetically encourage “deformities” that might create competitive advantages in any number of realms.
In the 2004 presidential debates, President Bush appeared to have some sort of box crammed into the back of his jacket. While the President and his handlers, including Edgar Cheney, deny that there was any device to help prompt his memory or feed him answers, was it really that different from the rest of us answering questions with the benefit of an Internet search engine? Most of us, even when we have good memories, accept the notion that a PDA can help make us more efficient. Or not.
In my own lifetime, one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is that the “artificial” has become more and more integrated into our bodies. Any number of people are able to lead “normal” lives thanks to various pumps, battery-powered regulatory devices, and sockets implanted in their bodies. It’s clear to me that our notion of what offends us is far more conservative when it comes to sports.
The fascinating thing to me is that we live in a culture that treats its athletic stars as Gods in so many ways, yet as we ourselves develop ways to do things once reserved for the Gods or through their intervention our fear of this sudden shift manifests in sports.