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.