Article in the very last Sports Monthly magazine for the Observer (UK) by David Runciman.
From Usain Bolt to Rafa Nadal, top sports stars are fitter, faster and stronger than ever. But how long will it be before the pursuit of perfection takes all the drama out of sport
* David Runciman
* The Observer, Sunday 10 January 2010
Rafael Nadal serves
Rafael Nadal serves. Photograph: Ballesteros/EPA
At the end of his novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Julian Barnes imagines what it would be like to play golf in heaven. His first round is suitably blissful – he shoots 67, 20 shots better than any of his previous, Earth-bound efforts hacking round the local course, and everything just feels right. But because this is heaven, he has the time to keep getting better, and he does, improving his score into the low 60s, then on into the 50s, always driving the green, always holing his putts. Soon his target score is in the 40s, but why stop there? “My game has improved no end, I thought, and repeated the words no end to myself.” One day, he realises, he would go round in 18 shots. “And then what? Had anyone, even here, played a golf course in 17 shots?”
There is something essentially absurd about the pursuit of sporting perfection, because when sport gets too easy it becomes increasingly pointless. One of the most satisfying of sports jokes also happens to be about the tribulations of playing golf in heaven. One day, St Peter and Jesus decide to play a round, and St Peter, who has bought all the latest equipment, tees off. He hits a lovely drive, straight down the middle of the fairway. Jesus, who is dressed in a miserable smock and playing with some old wooden clubs, hooks his tee-shot and it’s heading out of bounds. But then an angel appears from nowhere and bats the ball back into play with one of its wings. Down swoops the dove of peace, who catches the ball in its beak and flies all the way to the green, dropping it just in time for the Holy Spirit to come up and blow the ball gently into the hole. St Peter turns to Jesus with a sigh. “Do you wanna play golf,” he says, “or do you wanna fuck around?”
The fear for many people today is that it is rapidly advancing technology, rather than divine intervention, that risks turning sport into a joke. The scope for us to mess around – not just with the rules, or the equipment, but with the human body itself – threatens to make a mockery of traditional accomplishments, as records are shattered and games transformed. This presents a real dilemma for anyone contemplating how to manage the future of sport.
All sports, particularly professional sports, are constantly on the lookout for superhuman performers who can transcend what people thought was possible. The paying public demands as much. But they also have to be careful that these same players don’t make the sport look ridiculous. It is often a fiendishly difficult balance to strike.
When Tiger Woods arrived on the professional golf scene, he was widely recognised as the saviour of a sport that had become a dull parade of plump, indistinguishable white men huffing and puffing their way around the course. His father, Earl Woods, even went so far as to call him “the Chosen One” and claimed that he would “do more than any other man to change the course of humanity”. We now know for sure that whatever else he might be, Woods is definitely not Jesus. But back then there were those who worried that Woods was too far ahead of the rest of the field, a fear that seemed to be confirmed when he won his first Masters in 1997 by a ludicrous 12 shots. So various courses, including the Augusta National, were “Tiger-proofed”, making them longer and tougher.
The aim wasn’t to stop Woods winning – it was essential Woods keep winning for the financial good of the sport, and, if anything, these changes simply added to his advantages by making some holes almost impossible for his competitors. The idea was simply to stop Woods’s victories from looking like a stroll in the park. Yet in forcing Woods to work for it, the people running the game contrived to make his golf conservative and joyless, and eventually the courses had to be tweaked once more to allow some of the fun back in.
Golf is such an obviously artificial sport – with the players constantly tinkering with their equipment and the organisers fiddling with their pin positions – that endless readjustment is possible, to keep the game from becoming either too easy or too hard. But other sports have less room for manoeuvre. Athletics, for instance, needs its stars to keep breaking records in order to persuade the public to carry on watching. The trouble is, we are getting close to the limits of human physical capability – the rate at which records are likely to fall is slowing, and so is the margin by which improvements can be made. As a result, the more records actually do get broken, the more we become suspicious of how it was achieved.
Athletics aspires to an ideal of natural human excellence: it is meant to be a pure competition of the strongest, the fastest, the fittest. But there is something increasingly unnatural about athletic achievement at the highest level – it is by definition an abnormal accomplishment – and something even more unnatural about the idea that human beings can keep getting faster ad infinitum. So the sport’s authorities are engaged in an endless battle to celebrate the “right” sort of athletic achievement while clamping down on the “wrong” kind.
Take last year’s World Athletic Championships in Berlin, which saw two freakish performances, though each was treated completely differently. The “good” freak was Usain Bolt, who smashed the world records in both the 100m and 200m by margins that had seemed impossible before he came on the scene. The “bad” freak was Caster Semenya, who annihilated the field in the women’s 800m, but immediately fell under suspicion because she looks too much like a man. What is the difference between them? Only that in Semenya’s case we can see what makes her different from her fellow competitors and in Bolt’s we can’t be sure.
With Semenya, we know what’s going on – she has an unusual genetic make-up that has given her a combination of male and female sexual characteristics. But how does Bolt achieve his astonishing speeds? He is taller than most sprinters, but that only makes it odder, because his height should be a disadvantage. What’s more, Semenya fell some way short of the women’s 800m world record, which still stands from the era when steroid-fuelled athletes from eastern Europe dominated women’s athletics. So she is by no means as freakish as some. On the other hand, Bolt runs faster than any human being in history, which means he must be doing something that has never been done before. Yet still we celebrate Bolt as the natural athletic genius, and we treat Semenya as an abomination.
The dilemma for anyone involved in top-level sport is knowing how to walk this line when the possibilities for the technological enhancement of natural ability is growing all the time. The temptation is to hark back to some golden age when these things were much clearer – back when men were men and talent could shine through.
The fact is that sport has always operated according to a double standard, as the authorities struggle to draw a clean distinction between what counts as natural talent and what counts as an unfair advantage. According to Vanessa Heggie, a historian of sports science at Cambridge, “there has never been a time when people weren’t worried that artificial techniques would ruin sport”. Originally, this fear extended to the idea of training itself – in the 1920s and 1930s there were regular complaints that athletes were gaining an unfair advantage by spending weeks or months building up to a race, when it was widely believed that sport was meant to be a competition to see who was better on the day itself.
Now we think training is good, but drugs, which were widely accepted back then (in the 1930s the Wolves manager Frank Buckley boasted about giving monkey glands to his players, in order to enhance their “natural” powers), are seen as bad. But as Heggie points out, a lot of sports medicine is simply about repairing the damage that training and then competition inflicts on the human body. “We patch sportsmen and women up,” she says, “so that they can carry on harming themselves and other people.” For years, it was feared that steroid abuse was doing untold damage to a generation of American football players. We now know that what has really been harming them is the routine concussions they pick up day after day in training.
Athletics is not a contact sport, but still it requires that people make themselves ill through relentless training in order to perform at the highest level. What’s more, stringent anti-drug rules mean that athletes can’t even take routine medication to treat their aches and pains. We are so obsessed with preserving some ideal of natural excellence that we have forgotten, in Heggie’s words, how “completely artificial all sport actually is”.
Andy Miah, professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland, is one of Britain’s leading experts on artificial enhancement in sport. He thinks that we are spending our time worrying about the wrong things. He believes that our obsession with drugs has blinded us to the multitude of means that are now available to top athletes to enhance their performance – from altitude chambers to cooling boxes, which can freeze an athlete’s body parts in order to prevent overheating during a race.
Many of these techniques are relatively untested and most are only lightly regulated, if at all – the sheer volume of new scientific research, and the economic forces that are driving it, means that artificial enhancement in sport is more or less beyond regulation anyway. So Miah thinks that we should give up the fight to hold the line between “fair and unfair advantages”, and simply enjoy the full variety of sporting excellence, “wherever it comes from, so long as we are doing what we can to make it safe”.
Instead of worrying that artificial enhancement threatens the future of sport by making it unfair, Miah thinks there is a different prospect on the horizon which we should be much more concerned about. This is the threat posed by genetic testing for athletic attributes, which far from giving some top performers an unfair advantage, could end up making them all the same.
For the past few years, relatively cheap tests have become available which claim to identify, simply by means of a mouth swab, whether someone has a genetic predisposition towards certain kinds of athletic excellence – it could indicate, for instance, whether a young child is likely to do better in endurance or speed sports, or whether an athlete is likely to benefit from a particular training regime. One manufacturer (Atlas Sports Genetics) boasts that its SportGene Test “gives parents and coaches early information on their child’s genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports”.
The risk here, as Miah points out, is not of genetic experimentation but of genetic determinism – the idea that certain body types are suited to certain kinds of sports, meaning that kids of a particular disposition are all pushed down the same path. In the US, genetic testing is being marketed at pushy parents wanting to give their offspring a head start on the path to sporting success.
Once upon a time, children would have to try out different sports to see if they were any good at them, which meant that people might excel in unexpected ways. Eric Bristow recalled that his dad, believing that all children were capable of being champions at something, tried his distinctly unathletic son out at every possible sport until as a last resort they had a go at darts, so proving the father right. Who knows what a genetic testing device would have prescribed for Bristow, but the fear is that many talented children won’t get the chance to experiment.
It is probably no coincidence that the sport where a demand for genetic testing first surfaced is rugby, with reports that it was being tried out by Australian teams back in 2005. In the past few years, rugby has been transformed out of all recognition by the demand for ever bigger, ever stronger players to counter the threat of the ever bigger, ever stronger players on the other teams. We have come a long way since the arrival on the scene of Jonah Lomu in the mid-1990s. Like Tiger Woods at roughly the same time, the 6ft 5in, 115kg winger threatened to make a mockery of his sport. After New Zealand’s 1995 World Cup match against England, in which Lomu had batted off the England players’ tackles like a full-grown adult thrown into an under-13 game, England captain Will Carling famously said: “He is a freak, and the sooner he goes away the better.” But Lomu wasn’t a freak – he was a forerunner of things to come.
Now rugby is full of players at least as big as Lomu, and all capable of bringing each other down. Many fear the sport is being ruined, with too many top players getting injured and too many games becoming sterile, attritional affairs. Playing around with genetic testing to find these supermen hasn’t prevented rugby from getting stuck in a rut: the obsession with size and strength has made it less like some brave new world of scientific enhancement and more like medieval warfare, a bloody mess. Each side knows what it needs to do to stop the other from advancing, and no one wants to try something different for fear of getting crushed.
Rugby is not the only sport to suffer from the physical stereotyping made possible by advanced training techniques. Tennis, particularly women’s tennis, has become increasingly predictable as large, muscular, identikit players try to out-thump and out-grunt each other. Certainly tennis is a sport that has been diminished by the increasing specialisation of young children, who get sent away to training camps at any early age so that they can make sure they develop the same skill-sets as everyone else. The fear, for parents, children and coaches alike, is of getting left behind.
It’s hard to imagine a touch player like John McEnroe, who only took up the game when he was eight and quickly evolved his own distinctive style of play, being allowed to develop like that today. Instead, the future seems more likely to belong to players such as Rafael Nadal and Juan Martín del Potro, who have the physical stature to make the most of their relentless training. There is no question that tennis is faster, tougher, more competitive than it has ever been. But it is also getting a little bit dull.
Still, there are grounds for hope. Justine Henin is returning to the sport, in the belief that her larger, more powerful opponents will have forgotten how to play someone with a single-handed backhand who doesn’t belt everything back. In the 1990s the men’s game looked set to be dominated by big servers with little or no finesse, but then along came Roger Federer to show that power coupled with finesse could still beat raw power. Even rugby will find a way out of its current impasse – it may need some rule changes, but eventually someone will work out a way to outwit pure muscle. You can’t stay stuck in medieval warfare for ever.
What people want from sport is drama, surprises, new achievements, regular gratifications, but also some element of mystery. They want things to keep on getting better, they just don’t want to know how it is all being done. The problem with athletes such as Semenya is that we can see the strings – we know what makes them different, because it’s all on the surface.
The same thinking lies behind the decision of the swimming governing body Fina to ban the performance-enhancing swimsuits that had been allowing world records to be broken with alarming frequency – it was too obvious that they were making all the difference. It made swimming look easy.
But Miah’s argument is that we have become fixated on our own stereotypes of what counts as unfair advantage – drugs, swimsuits, men posing as women – while we have little or no idea of what is going on behind the scenes in sports laboratories and training camps, where much of the latest forms of enhancement is taking place.
And Heggie goes further – we also have no idea what goes on inside athletes’ bodies, even discounting the problems of drug-testing. Poor Caster Semenya has endured the indignity of having her internal organs examined and discussed by the world’s media, in order to decide if she is a “real” woman. “But we don’t test male athletes to see who has the XYY chromosome,” Heggie says (this chromosomal disorder can lead to increased growth velocity during childhood, an important advantage in early sports selection). “To single out Semenya on the grounds of fairness and equity is simply ludicrous. What we call ‘unnatural’ is simply a reflection of racial bigotry and gender bigotry.” The problem is not in the athletes – it’s in us.
All top athletes are freaks of one kind or another – we just happen to prefer the kind who make their freakishness look natural. We want our sports stars to be godlike, but we also like to pretend they are not so different from the rest of us. However, they are different, and as time goes by they are likely to become ever more so. The real risk of technological advance is not that the elite performers become too remote from everyone else, but that they end up too much like each other, as all of them pursue the same artificial advantages. It won’t be easy to regulate sport in order to prevent it from becoming ridiculous. But there is no point in trying to keep it natural either – that battle was lost a long time ago.