Photo: Tim McKenna

“He pits humanity against the immense forces of nature and garners some rare, violent form of beauty from the ridiculousness of the mismatch.”  Photo: Tim McKenna


The Inertia

There is an interesting video on the TMZ website featuring Laird Hamilton talking about the use of performance enhancing drugs by pro athletes. It went live more than a year ago and got very little play in the surfing world, or indeed any play besides that of TMZ. In the interview, Hamilton comes very close to endorsing the use of PED’s in pro sports, even interjecting the imaginative analogy, “Rocket ships need rocket fuel to go into space,” which insinuates that athletes cannot perform the way they do based on training and diet alone.

By no means is Hamilton’s statement an unqualified endorsement of drug use, as some have since implied. Instead, it seems to come from a person who knows very well, and perhaps resents, what it means to constantly be expected by sponsors, advertisers, and the public to strive to some ill-defined act of greatness on the sliding scale of extreme. Once you are pushed to the very margins of that scale in order to maintain a whisper of relevance in the annals of your sport’s history, drugs make as much sense as anything else. Laird implicitly blames the general public for this escalation of performance expectations – society created this type of athlete, he seems to say. Now, in its infinite hypocrisy, it is cutting them down. This is true to a point, but it’s not the whole truth.

The general public, those listless masses trapped in the tedious horror of the wage earning life, will gobble up most anything marketed to them with a large enough advertising budget. They don’t care if the race time was 30 seconds faster or the wave was five feet larger. What they really want is sport that acts as a metaphor for life, that is: a life not lived in the fugue of the hamster wheel. They want triumph and tragedy, well-defined heroes and villains, and most importantly, they want confirmation of their blind faith in the simple logic of meritocracy, where doing your job well means you will be rewarded with success and doing it poorly means failure. That this meritocracy is so obviously absent from modern capitalist democracy only makes them crave more of it, even in the purely symbolic space of the sporting field.

This is what the Performance Enhancing Drug user and his slave drivers in the various sport marketing offices fail to grasp. Although the arms race is heading towards bigger tricks, faster speeds and world records, it slits its own wrists at the exact moment that it becomes more important than presenting sport as a metaphor for a simpler and more fulfilling form of life. Once the proverbial level playing field is revealed as a petty marketing sham, once winning is unmasked as something that is purchased and ingested by the highest bidders like so much aspirin, it becomes terribly obvious that sport functions according to the same corrupt rules that all our lives are beholden to. Just that easily, meritocracy is replaced by neo-liberal capitalism and sport is nothing more than a colorful and violent reminder that we live in a world that is run by people who have more money than we do. When the ruse is revealed, the pleasure in viewing is instantly tainted.

What is really interesting about Hamilton’s comment, though, is that he does not work in organized sports. He doesn’t compete in any leagues or make any pretensions to fairness vis-a-vis other surfers (I’m discounting his self-cultivated status as a fitness guru here). Instead, he rides enormous waves very well, and often rides them in interesting ways. In an interview with us a while back, Laird said he trains to be prepared for the earth. Think about that. His is a job almost without homologue in the modern world, but perhaps most similar to that of the mountain climber. Instead of pitting humanity against humanity, he pits humanity against the immense forces of nature and garners some rare, violent form of beauty from the ridiculousness of the mismatch. Hamilton can never actually triumph in his undertaking – he can only evoke the grandeur of the world and a latent sense of tragedy through juxtaposition with his own comparatively puny being. It is a funny sort of art, if you’ll excuse the reliance on an overused term.

Who could complain then, if Hamilton, Greg Long, Garrett McNamara, climbers like Ueli Steck, or the great Rienhold Messner want or wanted to use drugs to supplement their training regimes? If people who have dedicated their lives to the sheer, desolate edges of non-competitive sports want to use performance enhancing substances and are open about their decision, I wouldn’t blame them any more than I would blame the artist who uses psychotropics or the writer who drinks too much.

The reality of creating something beautiful is often terribly ugly. Using any kind of substance to aid this endeavor usually ruins your health and makes you a bastard to be around, but artists, writers, and athletes are not meant to be judged on their personalities. As for the ridiculous notion that professional athletes should be physical role models for the rest of us, you need only to check the lists of injuries that such people compile throughout their short careers to realize that they are systematically ruining their bodies for the enjoyment of the braying masses. There is nothing physically healthy about modern professional sport, so adding drugs to the mix is not a departure from some ideal norm, it is a logical extension of what amounts to a long term program of self-destruction in search of an elusive concept of greatness.

This is not a narrative that the agenda-setters of the modern mass media are particularly comfortable with. The darker elements of the pursuit of the ever-diminishing margins that symbolize “victory” in the 21st century must be elided in order to ennoble a more or less abominable project of throwing the young and physically able into the grist mill until their bodies and minds are broken against the capricious dreams of a terminally unhappy populace. Those who compete against each other should be restricted in the name of standardization and fairness, or perhaps all allowed to use the same drugs, but those who compete only against themselves and the fury of a dying world have always done so at their own risk. You cannot hold them to an idealized and unrealistic notion of athletic purity and also claim to cheer for them as they peer into the abyss.

  • Tiger’s Den

    Jesus that’s well written.

    • chezza

      See a couple big words in there that you didn’t know?

  • Ben

    Respectfully I disagree.

    The juxtaposition of surfer on wave is, at least for me, less meaningful if PEDs are involved, be the surfer aesthete or competitor. I believe that Endo is correct regarding big wave progression and the public’s subsequent inuring to anything less than spectacular, but that has always been the case for big wave surfing, and we have not yet hit a definitive limit on what is surfable. Furthermore, we have used technology to create far superior impact vests, inflatable suits, and jet-ski rescues to somewhat mitigate the still very real danger.

    Ultimately, boundaries broken with the aid of PEDs will receive the same mental asterisk in surfing that they do in baseball or cycling (or football if they could ever catch one of the guys).

    I very much understand and respect the concept of the intoxicated artist, e.g. Kerouac, Burroughs, Hendrix, Cobain, hell even Bradley Nowell, but ultimately their substance use did not enhance their performance, rather it removed them from the earth prematurely, thus hindering their expression (Burroughs being an exception). The drugs did not enhance their productivity or creativity, rather the drugs are another manifestation of the same adventurous capacity from which their talent springs. Furthermore, once drug use is solidified, it inhibits or impairs their fullest expression (despite the bullshit anecdotes to the contrary).

    Regardless, interesting viewpoint Mr. Endo. May we spar again.

    • Vish

      I was just wondering what it is you disagree with. It seems to me Teddy’s point IS that the use of drugs in sport essentially becomes irrelevant, breaking people for the sake of a cynical industry that sells itself as ‘health’ when it is anything but. I would have thought the points you’ve made actually agree with the sentiment of this piece.

  • mexicanfooddude

    Very well written article, really enjoyed it.

  • Johnny Bee

    Society did not create Laird. Laird created Laird.

  • Karl Haupt

    I like the article, and I like Ben’s reply. This was a great read. Finally something I really enjoyed reading online! thanks :)

  • mrempty

    One of the more concise and well written articles I have read on this site. Well done

  • ZappBrannigan

    I wish people didn’t cast wage earning in such a negative light. It is not always that bad and I’m pretty sure people build on the negative stigma and make their lives worse.

    I also feel there is an interesting article to be written about bumping up performance, in other competitive line ups.

    It sort of makes sense these guys would use performing enhancing drugs. Right now there is a dude in golds gym shooting steroids into his ass so he can bench more and impress his friends.

  • matt

    Wow…whether or not you agree with this sentiment, that is the most well written piece of surf talk I’ve seen in quite a long while.

  • BH70s

    This is the best thing I have ever read on surfing. I feel…reflective…awe….

  • Jeffrey Bell

    Tetsuhiko Endo, Superlative Writing. Flabbergasted and amazed with your Insight and Excellent expression of Thoughts with words. Beautiful and Spot on. Could this be written any better? I think not. ” The general public, those listless masses trapped in the tedious horror of the wage earning life, will gobble up most anything marketed to them with a large enough advertising budget.” Pure Gold. An expression of thought that I could not say or think any better. Thank you. Are you on Facebook?

  • http://www.fysiologik.com/ fysiologik

    Excellent writing Endo

    Im commenting on a couple of the replys here.

    To the replys here, its clear you are making inferences, and have little sense of clinical understanding of PED’s.

    Any athlete, or person who is under sanction or rules can do as they like if legally advised by a proper physician, Secondly if an athlete or layman suffers from hypogonadism from HPTA deficiency, or chronic high cortisol levels and therefore diminished hormone health, gets help to rectify it from a Dr how is it wrong. Taking them to maintain optimal range is not a an advantage, its maintaining a homeostatic default that some way or another the body has lost.

    They have it in government run governing bodies of combat sports via TUE [thereputic usage exemption]; ironically most athletes who claim it have lost more then won on TRT. And to Vish who says this isnt a health thing? Really you ever meet someone who suffers massive symptomology of a destroyed HPTA and then gets psych meds shoved down their throat, to make them ‘better’. They are ok? ruin livers, ruin bone density, and offer up worse side effects than the symptoms often, but because the FDA and big pharmas lobbyist got it legal makes it AOK. Ridiculous.

    I understand the conversation but the stigma and the social modicum of how wrong it is. If your a healthy person taking this stuff, thats cheating I see that. As for the facts its going to aid recovery, some lean body mass. But it will also tighten muscle fiber, thicken blood and actually inhibit performance. Its a recovery facet very ideal for the component of intense training. Its retarded some of the couch quarterback opinions based on nothing more than I saw this in the news quasi-science and perspective. As well you feed steroids to a donkey it wont make it a race horse. I suppose if you blow out your knee or having a bulging disc and they inject you with a small cycle of GH or testostorone, or other medical steroids its ok, but if you a look-death-in-face-athlete and want an ergogenic aid youre a pariah and underhanded. I get teh argument and an excellent conversation but seems to based on cynicism.

    Im not pro PEDs, Im pro performance, but super anti ignorance.

    For the record I despise Laird, and how he is the lighthouse representitive for surfing bums me out. Surf around him and see how completely disgusting his Aloha is, and how he bullys people in the line up is weak. Its fine some of us are just as fit and his size and can counter his shvtty all-for-me attitude. He is a waterman of great respect but he should learn something about chilling out from and not shvtting on other people in line up in the world who have afforded him the career he has. I tore my fan card up years ago.

    Great writing again